This is the year I really got hooked on horse racing for good. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked it before then. I attended my first Travers at 7, to see Chris McCarron win on Deputy Commander in 1996. I cried the year before because my dad wouldn’t take me to see Thunder Gulch. I was in the Gulfstream Park Turf Club at age 6 weeks. Belmont Park, the day before the Belmont at 5. My 10th birthday present was a trip to the Breeders Cup in 1999 to see Cat Thief upset the star studded field in the Classic. I liked horseracing well enough by 2002. But that year really cemented it in my soul.
That spring, I was in awe of War Emblem. I was not on the bandwagon for the first two legs of the Triple Crown. At the ripe age of 12, I proclaimed at the 1/2 mile pole in the Derby that he could never hold on in those fractions. I turned tides in the Preakness, because I knew I had tickets to the Belmont. I wanted to see a Triple Crown.
War Emblem could not get it done. It was over before it began. He stumbled at the start when he needed the lead to win. But that is not what I remember the most of the 2002 Belmont Stakes Day. I remember the anticipation. The feeling in my gut that I could witness history. Souvenir $2 win ticket tucked away in my pocket. On the third floor seats at Big Belmont Park, looking down on the starting gate as the field was loading. It was intense and I got caught up in it.
I was angry that day. Much like many people were a few weeks ago by California Chrome. But as the Spring turned into summer, I began to get excited again. I knew Saratoga was coming.
I told my parents I wanted to go to the races everyday. My mother was a little disturbed by this, and told me I had to get a job if I wanted to go everyday. I did the same thing any aspiring track-rat living in Saratoga would do for money: I sold newspapers.
I knew the Saratoga Special was a paper started the year before. I had recognized Sean Clancy’s name from the program as a steeplechase jock. Since I idolized jockeys, I figured this was the best paper to work for.
I sold newspapers for the ‘Special outside of the Union Avenue gate all season. I worked 11am-2pm, made $6 an hour. $18 covered a $2 bet in every race. Perfect. As the meet proceeded, I realized this income was not sufficient. Having realized the amazing profits that could be reaped from exacta boxes, came at the price of a greater outlay.
I then started “running errands” for people at the track in addition to my paper duties. I was a sort of waiter. Taking orders from people in the clubhouse for hot dogs or sodas. One guy who sat in the clubhouse even set up a cooler in the backyard where he kept beers that he had me grab for him at his bidding. I took “orders” on Sundays to spin for giveaways. I did anything so I could go to the races, and wager hoping to win and see something memorable, historical even.
That summer, I saw some of the most memorable races of my life. Hands down, my favorite Durkin race call: The 2002 Test. You, with Jerry Bailey up prevailing by the slimmest margin over speedball Carson Hollow.
Medaglia D’Oro sweeping the Jim Dandy and the Travers. Claiming the canoe on the coldest, sloppiest Travers Day I can remember.
The mighty and ageless Evening Attire, closing fast to claim the Saratoga Breeders Cup Handicap, at large odds. No one in attendance having any inkling about the extent of Evening Attire’s ability or longevity as a stakes winner. He went on to win set a track record winning a stake at Philadelphia Park, and retire as a fan favorite of New York track goers.
The big, more white than gray With Anticipation, winning his second of consecutive Sword Dancer Invitationals. Pat Day giving a textbook “Patient Pat” performance.
Those performances, strung together made for a great summer. And even though War Emblem did not come to Saratoga to race, I got to see competitive and memorable races.
I learned a lot that summer too. I learned to bet. I learned handicapping is not simply about picking the horse you like, its about picking the horses with the best chance to win and those representing good value. I learned the value of an earned dollar. It was a great summer. I fell in love with the sport and all its intricate characters, games and story-lines.
As I think back to that summer, I am reminded of the possibilities of this summer. The hope to see champions put on championship performances at Saratoga. I get that feeling again, that I could witness something great. Although this sport can beat you up, whether as a fan, an owner, a racetrack operator, a journalist or a jockey, the best thing about this game is that tomorrow is always full of new chances.
There is always the possibility of greatness to be right in front of us. Although the stars of this sport have shorter careers than those of major sports, it makes it all the more special when you get to experience their greatness.
So do not be remorseful about California Crown’s failure. Be happy to have seen his opportunity. And be happy to know that later this summer, a new championship performance could occur. And be hopeful that you are there to see it.