A Summer Book for the Upstate Winter: Saratoga, 2009

omeara finalIn this historic summer at Saratoga, it is de rigeur to recall the memorable moments at the Old Spa: Man o’War losing the Sanford. Jaipur and Ridan’s Travers. Onion upsetting Secretariat.

And of course, Rachel Alexandra.

Her Woodward tops many lists, especially for those too young to remember some of those other races, especially for those who were here when noise surged through the old grandstand, quite literally shaking the rafters that had been witness to so many epic contests.

Writer Brendan O’Meara was at Saratoga in that summer of 2009. A former turf writer for The Saratogian, he wanted to write a book about the track in which, he said, “all readers could relive the Saratoga meet over the drab upstate winter.”

He was particularly interested in the point of view of racing executives, and early on, former NYRA president and CEO Charlie Hayward agreed to be part of the book, granting O’Meara access to meetings and decision-making. He also got permission from trainer Nick Zito and jockey Calvin Borel to follow them daily.

Borel, of course, was in town to ride Rachel Alexandra that summer, and while O’Meara didn’t get the same access to her, he “kept his ear to the ground for her,” and Borel’s involvement made following the star filly a little easier.

O’Meara, 33, didn’t grow up around horse racing, but like so many other people, he was captivated by Saratoga Race Course when he came here as a young adult.

“When you get to Saratoga, you get a feeling unlike any other place,” he said. “It had the feel of that carnival atmosphere, and the pageantry of it all—it’s addicting to be here.”

Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown run solidified his commitment to the sport,  “galvanizing” him, he said, to pay more attention to it. He eventually wrote a book-length manuscript about horse racing in graduate school, before landing his job at The Saratogian.

In Six Weeks in Saratoga, How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Hose of the Year, O’Meara recreated scenes through what he describes as “mind-numbing” questions to those who were present:  Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen, who took over the training of the filly when she was sold to Jess Jackson; Calvin Borel and his then-girlfriend Lisa, who’s now his wife; Hal Wiggins, Rachel Alexandra’s former trainer.

“You always have to ask stupid questions,” said O’Meara. “’What was the weather like? What were you wearing? What were you eating?’ They’d roll their eyes, but I wanted to see the things I could see if I were there in person.”

He describes his writing as “detached,” relying on a “ton of reporting to let the story speak for itself.”

“If a reader is going to invest the time to spend 300 pages with me, I put a lot of effort into reporting to distill scenes and try to be a nice authorial presence without getting in way of the story,” he said.

“I want to bring a certain sensation to the page so that people almost forget they’re reading non-fiction.”

O’Meara will be signing copies of Six Weeks in Saratoga, How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Hose of the Year on Tuesday, August 13 from 4 – 5 pm at Northshire Bookstore on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.

 

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