JC / Railbird

Saratoga Archive

At Saratoga

Forgive me a bit of redboarding.

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to claim to have had Persistently. I played the undercard, passed on the feature.)

We were in our seats at Saratoga well before first post. Mr. Railbird, usually good for about three hours at the track, was considering a mid-afternoon stroll into town, and wondering, if he took that walk up Broadway, if he would regret missing the Personal Ensign.

“It’s not going to be another Woodward,” I said. “I expect her to lose.”

It was true. I could already see the finish, the head or half-length of another horse in front of Rachel Alexandra. I didn’t think it would be 21-1 Persistently, running in her first graded stakes race in two years, a result that I would only appreciate later — there’s an undeniable narrative satisfaction to the winning connections being those of the race’s namesake, dead this year at 26.

I’m a fangirl, though, and I still hoped, and when she looked to be pulling away at the top of the stretch, having put away Life At Ten with ease after a solid opening half in :47.73 and three-quarters in 1:12.02, I let out a cheer. There was a flash of her old brilliance, a moment in which she looked like the Rachel of 2009. Then came Persistently, and all was over. A tired Rachel Alexandra going 10 furlongs for the first time, needing more than :27 seconds for the final quarter, was outrun by a length. “I didn’t feel any acceleration and I got worried,” said jockey Calvin Borel. “She wasn’t really there. I knew if anyone was running behind us, we were in trouble.”

We don’t want the magic to end.”

It’s hard to let go of what was.

But, let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen. Rachel Alexandra this year is not the same horse she was last year.”

A different horse, surely, but still tough and full of heart.

The time has come to send her home.”

How silly.

With every loss this year have come more calls to retire the filly. What it is about losing that provokes this reaction? It says so much more about the human ego than it does about the horse, who’s hardly disgracing herself on track (even if it is a shame about the 95 Beyer speed figure in the Personal Ensign, ending her streak of 12 consecutive triple-digit Beyers). “I don’t want to give up on getting her back to where we were,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. And why should he? The Breeders’ Cup Classic is probably out, but with a record of two wins and three seconds from five starts, there’s no reason to think Rachel Alexandra can’t be competitive in the Distaff Ladies’ Classic.

“Her poor showing Sunday doesn’t mean that her achievements were in any way a fluke,” writes Andrew Beyer. “Her loss only demonstrates that she is flesh and blood, not a running machine.”

And still — as a friend emailed to say this morning — a hell of a horse.

Rarely is there as much dissonance between a race call and what’s happening on track as there was in the Travers Stakes. Watching the replay, the excitement in Tom Durkin’s voice as the field comes down the stretch just doesn’t square with Fly Down and Afleet Express looking for all the world like two horses at Aqueduct in February who really don’t want to pass each other while the other runners stagger behind to the wire. The final time of 2:03.28 was the slowest since 1998 (and somehow earns a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the first two finishers). Per Formulator, Afleet Express ran the last quarter in :26.44, Fly Down in :26.37. That’s just ugly. Track condition was certainly a factor. “The inside part of the racing strip was the path to victory,” notes Beyer. Gary West shares his analysis: “… the winning times on the day, when compared, don’t make any sense unless the track, for whatever reason, was slowing down. And slowing down.”

One of the more interesting juveniles running this summer is Theyskens’ Theory, a three-quarter sibling to 2005 juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy and the first stakes winner for freshman sire Bernardini following her visually easy 1 1/4 length victory in the seven-furlong Prestige Stakes at Goodwood. The race was her third start; she won her second at Newmarket last month, going quicker than 3-year-olds on the same card. Too bad she doesn’t seem likely for the Breeders’ Cup, with trainer Brian Meehan saying that he plans to run ‘Theory’ once more this year, possibly in the Fillies’ Mile at Ascot, then shelve her until next spring. “When she strengthens over the winter she will be a top-class three-year-old.” Maybe Churchill in 2011, then?

Saratoga, 1939

Inspired by Brooklyn Backstretch’s look back at Saratoga 100 years ago on opening day eve, I headed to the LIFE photo archive in search of historical pictures. An extensive series from 1939 turned up (unfortunately, missing labels and descriptions), which show the Spa, much the same, 71 years ago.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Cooling out.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
There are many photos of this horse in the series. Someone noteworthy, or a horse who happened to catch the photographer’s fancy?

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Harrowing the track.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
The backyard.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Turf terrace.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Superterrific and Swifty, in a previous incarnation?

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Stewards talking to a jockey.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
Yearling auction.

Saratoga as it was in 1939
The press box, open to the air.

All photos LIFE/Alfred Eisenstaedt. Follow the links to view the originals.

In the Books

Curlin returns to the winner's circle after the Woodward
Curlin entering the winner’s circle following the Woodward.
– Onward to the fall championship meet at Belmont, opening Friday, and the upcoming Breeders’ Cup, but first a farewell to the 2008 Saratoga season, which passed too quickly. This was the first summer I stayed the meet without working in the barns, which was a pleasant change (even if I did still begin each day before dawn). The six weeks passed with a feeling of dreamy sojourn, hard to shake even now back in real world Brooklyn. I’ve already forgotten the rain that dominated the first three weeks; what sticks out days after returning is the Alabama, Proud Spell and Music Note dueling down the stretch, Larry Jones exultant and teary in the winner’s circle; the Travers finish, the hush as the crowd waited for the photo, then the roar, and Colonel John’s owner-breeder Susan Casner trembling in excitement, taking in the results; and Ginger Punch in the Go For Wand, so determined to get through in the stretch after she was boxed in and blocked through most of the race. What I remember of Curlin is not the Woodward, an ordinary win in hindsight, for which he had to work too hard, but seeing the glowing chestnut gallop effortlessly in the pearly early morning light.
– Congratulations to Alan Garcia, leading jockey with 39 wins in only his second year on the New York circuit, and to Kiaran McLaughlin, leading Spa trainer for the first time in his career with 17 wins.
Jeremy Plonk lists the top 20 performances by 2-year-olds. I’d add Mani Bhavan, winner of the Adirondack (for which she was given a 100 BSF, the best of any baby at the meet) and the Spinaway (in which she was reminiscent of Indian Blessing as a juvenile), and Miss Ocean City, a debut winner for trainer Nick Zito during the first week. The Mineshaft filly beat a bunch of unknown quality over a sloppy track, but she did it in front-running fashion, opening up in the final yards, and she has an interesting pedigree, being 3×3 to Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew, and out of an unraced Kingmambo mare named Madam Lagonza.
– In comparison, I’m dashing out the door on Saratoga, but then, while I have an appreciation for the long goodbye, I’ve never had the knack.

Closing Weekend

Saddling jumpers before the Thursday NY Turf Writers Cup.
Six weeks have nearly passed and Saratoga comes to an end on Monday, despite my fervent wishes that the meet go on and on. In honor of Curlin Day (and the other, official holiday being celebrated), I’m taking the weekend off from posting (but will still be on Twitter). Railbird returns Tuesday Wednesday, with a Spa wrap-up from Brooklyn.


Ran into Alan of Left at the Gate near the paddock before the seventh, which was won by 7-2 Easy Ashley for Wesley Ward. Barely had the filly crossed the wire and Alan was pointing out that the trainer now had a Saratoga record of 20-8-1-3, a quietly successful meet in which he’d won with 40% of his starters, a stat I hadn’t even noticed. The oversight had me wondering what else I might have missed and reminded me of this interesting conversation on noticing, and how the better designers, writers, filmmakers, etc. are good at “super-noticing.” That also seems an essential quality to develop as a handicapper …

Leading Pair

Alan Garcia
Alan Garcia aboard Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Stream of Gold in the winner’s circle after the sixth.
– Alan Garcia surged to the lead in the rider standings with three wins on Wednesday, bringing his total to 33. Two of those wins were for Kiaran McLaughlin, now leading the trainer standings with 15 wins. The pair hook up for three races on Thursday: In the first, with Caesar Beware (scratched out of a race August 4 after flipping on his way to the paddock); in the ninth, with second time starter Justwhistledixie, third as the favorite in her debut earlier in the month (following a terrific gate work), but the 2-year-old Dixie Union filly had excuses in that the track was sloppy and she had to steady in traffic early; and in the sixth, with first-time starter Southern Oaks, a 2-year-old Vindication filly whose August 21 gate work matches closely that of Majestic Blue, a first out baby winner on Wednesday, and Regal Ransom, another McLaughlin debut winner on Monday.
– Garcia is on the verge of winning the title in only his second season at Saratoga, but there’s this little matter of having to be in Philadelphia on Monday
Casino Drive is heading back to the US in mid-September for the Breeders’ Cup … and Curlin could be shipping east for the Japan Cup. In related non-news, there’ll be no match race between the Horse of the Year and Big Brown.

(Not) Winding Down

Curlin painted window
Front office window at the Saratoga Downtowner Motel.
– Dark days are always subdued, and the last Tuesday before the final week is especially so. This morning felt autumnal, a little melancholy, the air chilly and daubs of fall color bright in the trees. It was possible to enter a local coffee shop on Broadway and get immediate service, and even though the barns still looked full on the backstretch, there was a feeling of packing up and moving on as conversations were filled with mentions of the upcoming Belmont meet and the Keeneland yearling sale.
Despite all that, and the usual post-Travers winding down, the weekend ahead promises to be much more exciting than getaway days of recent years. The midsummer Derby may be the meet’s conclusion for many, but Saratoga gets an epilogue in the form of Curlin headlining the Woodward, in addition to the running of the Forego on Saturday and the Hopeful and Spinaway on Monday, and NYRA is looking for a big closing weekend boost, reports Sherry Ross:

“We only average on the final Saturday about 23,000,” said NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward. “If we got less than 30,000, I’d be disappointed, as long as the weather holds up. We should finish very strongly.”

The town is hoping for a similar profitable end, promoting the Woodward with banners in the Jackson stable colors hanging downtown, a window decorating contest (see above), and various events, including a presentation by mayor Scott Johnson to Curlin of a key to city (a nice gesture, although unless the key is made of hay, I think the horse will have a hard time showing much interest).
– Curlin wrapped up his prep for the race with a four furlong work in :49.14 over the Oklahoma on Monday. According to assistant trainer Scott Blasi, he’ll gallop on Wednesday and school in the paddock again on Thursday. A field of six or seven is expected for the Woodward, including Met Mile winner Divine Park. Trainer Todd Pletcher is entering A.P. Arrow, just in case. “We need all of those stars to align and all the planets to align and we need everything and then some to go right…. Things happen sometimes.”
– Bill Mott scored his third Saratoga win on Monday, with second time starter Pioneerof the Nile, a 2-year-old Empire Maker colt, half to stakes-placed Forefathers. It’s a far cry from last year, when the trainer earned the Saratoga title with 27 wins, as yet another reporter reminds readers, but consider — Pletcher, who has won previous titles by racking up 24, 22, or 35 wins, is currently tied at 13 wins with Kiaran McLaughlin heading into the last six days, and Rick Dutrow is third with 11. Unless one of these guys gets hot and not only wins each day but wins multiple races in a day, the title this year seems likely to go to a trainer with fewer than 20 wins (an estimated total especially striking since NYRA has carded approximately 9% more races this summer than last). There’s no mystery to Mott’s cold summer; it’s the cycle of racing, combined with an ultra-competitive training colony.
– The riding title is no less competitive, with young Alan Garcia topping the standings with 30 wins (six of those graded stakes), John Velazquez sporting an equal total (and leading in earnings with more than $2.4 million won), and Edgar Prado sitting third with 26 wins (and 40 seconds, far more than any other jockey, a stat that must be its own source of frustration).
– FoR Bud sends along his Travers weekend photo album, including possibly the best at-the-wire shot of Ginger Punch winning the Personal Ensign.

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