Saying good-bye to Saratoga is never easy. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra that “age cannot with her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” and every summer, every week, those words come to mind as I make my way around the old Spa.
She has aged, that is certain; parts of her this year are 148 years old. Some are older, and they have not all aged well. It’s not hard, though, to overlook the cracks and the creakiness. Often, they are part of her charm.
I have been lucky these past few years to spend nearly every day of the racing meet on her grounds, on which I never step foot without pausing to take in her splendor, her curves and silhouettes, her eclectic architecture, her hushed history.
But the joy of Saratoga is in more than her past: it’s in her present, too, and she provided no shortage of memorable moments in the 2012 meeting.
Allen Jerkens won only two races this summer, but they were both stakes races, and when he won the Grade I Prioress by the smallest of noses with Emma’s Encore, Saratoga rejoiced. There could be no more appropriate setting for the victory that brought him to tears.
Questing! The Godolphin filly came to Saratoga with a maiden and allowance win to her credit, on the verge of retirement, and she left with two Grade I romping victories. Her Alabama was the race of the meeting.
Her stablemate It’s Tricky fell on her face at the break of the Personal Ensign, then recovered in the steady hands of Eddie Castro and finished third after posing a serious threat to champion Royal Delta and eventual winner Love and Pride. Saratoga saw no gutsier performance this summer.
Winter Memories dazzled in the Diana, winning comfortably and easily for the first time in far too long. For the last year, she’d stymied jockeys and sabotaged herself, but in winning her second Grade I, she ran her most professional race, for the second summer in a row adding her name to the list of winners in a race that her dam, Memories of Silver, had also won. She was retired by mid-August, suddenly, unexpectedly, but she gave us one last thrilling run to savor.
The Travers. The Travers! A venue that has seen so much history saw something it never had before: an official dead heat in its signature race. Confusion, joy, chaos reigned, on the track, in the winner’s circle, in the stands, in the backyard, in the press corps…and among the grounds crew, as the first question most people asked was… “But what about the canoe?”
Jonathan Sheppard won a race at Saratoga for the 46th consecutive year. Hessonite won two stakes races at the Spa. Ramon Dominguez won six races on a card twice.
Not all of the memories were good. Jackson Bend got clocked on the training track in a bizarre and frightening accident; in racing and training, seven horses lost their lives. I’ve loved Street Life since last March, and it hurt to see him pulled up, injured, and retired. Zo Impressive won’t race again, either, and while both horses are expected to recover, they are losses from my personal racing landscape.
Some races broke hearts; every race at Saratoga made someone’s day. I lost count of how many times I heard someone say, “To win a race at Saratoga is special.”
It felt, this summer, more pressing than usual to pause and absorb Saratoga’s moments and vistas, to take in her stunning and simple beauty. The future of New York racing is fraught with uncertainty, and we can only hope that next year’s Saratoga summer will be the same gift.
To the legion of racegoers who return year after year, the almost anti-modern nature of the stands is a critical part of its charm and explains why Saratoga Race Course is a cherished place to watch racing…cooled by the shade of the roof and the wind that rustles through the vertiginous pines, racegoers embrace the uncomfortable seats and the un-air-conditioned spaces of the open Clubhouse and Grandstand in return for the unparalleled Saratoga atmosphere.
So write Paul Roberts and Isabelle Taylor in The Spa: Saratoga’s Legendary Race Course. I am more blessed, more fortunate than I could ever have imagined or hoped that for seven weeks in the summer, that atmosphere, that place, is my office and my playground, my workplace and my sanctuary. There are few aches in the soul that a morning on its backstretch can’t soothe, at least temporarily.
Sixty years ago, another bard, one of racing’s finest, said it best, as he so often did.
Saratoga applies an anesthetic, of tranquil shaded lawns, of big white quiet houses, of a leafy and mellowed antiquity, and morning after morning of golden serenity…For the casual racegoer, Saratoga is about the only place in the East where he can see racing. Elsewhere he merely sees races, which isn’t the same thing at all.
–Joe Palmer, This Was Racing, 1953
Add your favorite Spa memories below…