Saratoga can be a cruel place -- This is the track where the aging Forego, in the twilight of his career, endured the worst loss of his life. This is the track where the game 13 year old steeplechaser Happy Intellectual suffered a terrible defeat this week that probably spelled the end of his career.
And this is the track that humbled another gallant old campaigner.
The occasion was the Socolof Gold Cup, an event that rapidly is becoming a Saratoga tradition. It had its origins a few years ago, when a disgruntled newspaperman tore up his tickets on a loser and muttered, "I could have run around the track faster than that bum."
"Oh, yeah?" a press box habitue named Pete Socolof interjected. "I'll give you a hundred bucks if you can run around the track without dying." Socolof later amended this offer and posted a $100 prize for a mile and one eighth race around the track, open to members of the press, race track and stable employees. The Socolof Gold Cup was born.
In 35 years of degeneracy, I have not enjoyed many shining moments of athletic triumph, but the 1976 Gold Cup was one of them. I had touted friends onto myself and encouraged them to bet me, which is easy enough to arrange in a city whose populace will freely wager on anything that breathes.
And I was a Saratoga rarity, a hot tip that paid off. When I entered the stretch, on the very soil where Secretariat and Man o' War had trod, I heard the public address system blaring, "It's Andy Beyer by 10 lengths!"
That, of course, was back in the prehistoric days before every American owned a pair of New Balance 320s. The running boom helped bring out a record field for last year's Socolof Gold Cup, and I was out of the money.
This year I started hearing about hotshot contenders the day I arrived in town.
"I saw this guy running on the Belmont turf course," a Racing Form man confided, "and after he did two laps, he dropped to the ground. I thought he had a heart attack -- until he started doing 50 pushups."
Undaunted, I planned my training with the care of a horseman aiming for the Kentucky Derby. I modeled by schedule after the way Laz Barrera had handled Bold Forbes, with long, slow gallops designed to build my stamina. Four days before the race, I gave mayself a hard workout over the track -- just as Lucien Laurin had done with Secretariat. On the morning of the race, I had a short, swift blowout -- as Allen Jerkens would do with Beau Purple.
On the afternoon of the Gold Cup, I observed the way all the races were run, so Beyer the trainer was able to give Beyer the racer the perfect instructions: "Lay off the pace, kid. Let the leaders burn themselves out. Stay on the rail, save ground, and make your move at the half-mile pole."
Hundreds of spectators remained after the races to watch the Gold Cup, the track announcer stayed to call it and the closed-circuit TV system covered it. When the field of 30 began to run, I followed my plan, dropped to the rail and waited. The television cameras, I was told, were following me, much as they had isolated on Silky Sullivan in the 1958 Kentucky Derby.
At the half-mile pole, I went (mentally) to the whip. But I noticed, to my dismay, that the leaders were fading into the distance.
By the time I was passing the one-mile mark, the winner -- a mutuel clerk built like a cross between Bill Rodgers and Charles Atlas -- was crossing the finish line a furlong ahead. I finished a distant eighth, as outclassed as a Charles Town claiming horse in a Saratoga stakes race.
I knew I was ready for the human equivalent of the glue factory, but race trackers rarely accept defeat at face value. They always suspect that larceny is afoot. The next morning I was jogging down Union Avenue when a motorist slowed and yelled, "I saw what you did, Beyer. Stiffed yourself so you can get better odds next year."
That is an accusation I won't try too hard to dispel.