For many, summer is a time for enjoying your favorite sport or pastime at a leisurely pace. This month, William Gildea embarked on his own American Summer--a visit to three hallowed sports venues: the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and St. Louis, where baseball and Mark McGwire are kings. Today he writes about Saratoga Springs.
A half century ago, turf writer Joe H. Palmer wrote that he was "no noted lover of the horse, but of a way of life of which the horse was once, and in a few favored places still is, a symbol--a way of charm and ease and grace and leisure." Palmer would have been pleased to visit Saratoga Race Course on a weekday this August, finding the crowd being reinvigorated by what he called an anesthetic of tranquility.
Saratoga is just as effective as ever in reducing a person to the proper speed for August. You can rush north on I-87 only to find yourself at a dead stop after taking the exit leading to Union Avenue. Saratoga brakes for horses, and since most of the barns are across the street from the main track, lines of cars come to a stop each morning as the horses clip-clop across the street for their constitutionals, heads bobbing, nostrils flexing in the fresh air.
But the parade of horseflesh hardly provokes the impatience you might feel sitting in a car waiting for a slow freight to pass. The race track itself--the second turn at the end of the wooden grandstand--juts almost to the street. You can lower your car window, feel the settled coolness of a new upstate August day and see a host of exercise riders and their mounts outlined against the weak morning light as they thunder toward the finish line. The impulse, on being waved forward by police directing traffic, is to get rid of the car.
Not many years after racing began here in 1863, writers began issuing hosannas to the timelessness of the track: the peace of the place beneath huge trees, the mix of wealthy patrons and railbird regulars eager to hit the sizable payoffs for which Saratoga is known; legendary jockeys and trainers mingling on the grounds; the horses close at hand on a path from the barns and in the paddock and even out on the track in front of the stands; the stands' wooden floors and creaky steps and rows of ceiling fans turning slowly in unison. But while Saratoga remains a trip to yesteryear, or a semblance of it, the place seems just as much a confluence of time: past, present and future.
As thoroughly as horse racing traditions are celebrated here, at least equal measure is devoted to the here-and-now of racing and to its future. Two-year-olds come in for special attention, with important races set aside for them; 2-year-olds' promise of Triple Crown glory the following spring is always being weighed here, and the name of this year's potential wonder steed proclaims his imminent stardom: More Than Ready.
Betting on a more-distant future is even riskier, yet those with ample means spend their money to extremes at the annual Saratoga Yearling Sales; on the third and last night of this month's auctioning, a bay colt sold for $3 million. The new owner's first privilege will be naming the horse.
'Ready,' Willing, Able
More Than Ready occupied himself one recent morning by looking out his stall and prancing a bit. Already he is 5 for 5, having wowed the Saratoga crowd most recently by winning the $100,000 Sanford Stakes at six furlongs by a gaping 9 3/4 lengths. Sept. 4th's $200,000 Hopeful Stakes, run at seven furlongs (a furlong is one-eighth of a mile), is Saratoga's major test for 2-year-olds. The likes of Man o' War, Nashua, Native Dancer, Secretariat and Affirmed have won the Hopeful, and no one is more hopeful--quietly hopeful--about next week's renewal than More Than Ready's trainer, Todd Pletcher.
Formerly an assistant to newly minted Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and already a top money-earning trainer in only four years, Pletcher, 32, will become much better known if More Than Ready's streak continues. Pletcher was given reason to hope by his father, J.J. Pletcher, also a trainer, who first got a saddle onto the dark bay prospect in Ocala, Fla. "He showed from early on that he was going to be one of the early developers," said Pletcher, standing outside his office in Barn 62. "He showed ability, but until you see him run in the afternoon, you never know for sure."
Now Pletcher knows. More Than Ready put on a burst of speed in the Sanford that separated him from the field, and possibly from all of this year's 2-year-olds. "He exceeded my expectations," Pletcher said. "He won the Tremont [5 1/2 furlongs in July at Belmont in New York] in track-record time. He won the Sanford by almost 10 lengths. You can never project these types of performances. Sometimes a 2-year-old can be a flash in the pan. In this game there are no absolute rules. But he's a quality horse. He's continued to develop. He's got a laid-back personality. He doesn't get riled up. Everything's old hat to him even now. He has a lot of intangibles."
Pletcher's blue eyes squinted in the sunlight as he cautiously assessed More Than Ready's potential to run the so-called classic distances--the mile-plus efforts required in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The horse's bloodlines trace to such sires as Halo, Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector and Buckpasser. What's more, Pletcher said, "He's shown no inclination not to run farther."
The best of all signs, perhaps, was the way More Than Ready took to the Churchill Downs track while winning there May 1. There, of course, is where Pletcher hopes to take him for next May's Kentucky Derby. And win. It seemed a reasonable hope here at Saratoga a long nine months before the fact, when a clear morning and warming sun gave rise to intemperate thoughts that this undefeated colt would continue free of trouble in his afternoons at the track.
Lukas, 63, already is the most famous trainer currently in the game, but the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame made his status official Aug. 10. In racing, happily, one need not be retired to be inducted. Lukas led the class of 1999 that included West Coast jockey Russell Baze, who has ridden more than 6,600 winners, and three horses: Exceller, Miesque and Gun Bow. The Hall, across Union Avenue from the track, numbers 72 trainers, 78 jockeys and 157 horses.
Six of Lukas's former assistants, including his son Jeff and Pletcher, presented him for induction--their words and presence on the dais putting a crack into his voice. But cowboy that he is, he shed no tears.
"Go back five generations in my family and no one even hooked a horse to a buggy," he said, describing the unlikelihood of a small-town Wisconsin boy "making it to Saratoga and Union Avenue." Along the way, he amassed unprecedented victories and earnings, established the first national training setup with operations at various tracks around the country and gained added attention by effecting the look of the Last American Cowboy, with jeans, boots, sunglasses and 10-gallon hat.
During that time, Lukas also drew scattered criticism for overworking some of his prized horses in his quest to win big races, thereby shortening their careers. He mentioned his critics--"a certain number of individuals, especially media members"--during his acceptance speech. But he promptly made clear he was not about to spend time admiring his new plaque in the Hall of Fame, or change his ways. Once a high school basketball coach, Lukas leaned in to the microphone and declared to a large, invitation-only assemblage: "If you want a coach to walk the ball up the court, you better get another guy. I'm going to run and press all the time."
Many Hall of Famers in the audience signed autographs beneath a tent near the paddock in the afternoon. People formed a line in the shade and passed in front of a long table at which the greats were seated. Ron Turcotte sat near the end of the table. "I always enjoy myself at Saratoga, it's always been my favorite place," said the man who once rode five winners here in one day. He smoked a thin cigar.
The ride of Turcotte's life came aboard Secretariat when they won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. A famous finish-line photo shows Turcotte looking over his left shoulder and the rest of the field small and blurry in the distance. "I looked to the tote board," he said. "I wanted to see the time." He suspected that Secretariat had made history, and there it was: 2:24 for the 1 1/2 miles, a record-shattering run for the ages.
"Riding him was something that, as you're coming along, you don't even dream about," Turcotte said. "He was coordinated and cooperative. He obeyed. He was a push-button machine. He was the greatest horse I ever rode, or rode against."
Five years later Turcotte was thrown from a horse at Belmont and suffered spinal cord injuries. He signed autographs this day at Saratoga from a wheelchair.
He once told the writer Tom Callahan: "If you asked me the day before I got hurt, I'd have told you I'd rather be dead than paralyzed. But I'd have been wrong. When you lose your legs, you miss being independent. You miss so many things. Just being alone in the woods. But you gain a strength, an appreciation for life, you never had before."
He still makes people happy. Pleased that he was back at Saratoga, they talked with him about Secretariat and he would tell each one something as he signed for them. At one point he turned and said: "I loved that horse."
The late Humphrey S. Finney, an Englishman familiar with the uncertainty of all aspects of racing, including yearling sales, once said: "In this game, only the fools are positive of everything."
Finney, who knew as much as anyone about bloodlines and breeding, headed the auction firm Fasig-Tipton Co., and the sales pavilion at Saratoga is named for him. Many years ago at a horse auction in Maryland, he pegged the lofty price of every horse auctioned almost to the dollar, then said: "This is the gosh-darndest thing in Maryland history. Pour me a bourbon."
The yearlings offered at Saratoga over three nights are as pricey as anywhere these days except Keeneland. Wasting no time on the way out of his induction ceremony, Lukas said, "I'm going to go look at yearlings." He'd already been looking. Potential buyers and agents, who include trainers such as Lukas, begin browsing in the sales paddock days in advance. About 231 yearlings would be put up for sale, and the crowd that milled about previewing them at the various stables included women in long dresses and straw hats and men in white trousers and white bucks. "She's going to get to the races. . . . I'm liking her more and more. . . . She moves like a cat. . . . "
A whispering crowd gathered at the green barn of Eaton Sales. The names of the sire and dam, the famous Storm Cat and Miss Union Avenue, were posted next to the third stall. When the dark bay filly, tagged simply No. 32, was led out for inspection, the crowd of admirers grew. That evening, No. 32 was led inside the pavilion with 800 red-cushioned seats and an art exhibit on the balcony, a perfect combination to entice the well-heeled. One of several bid-spotters wearing tuxedos pointed toward what became the winning call of $750,000 when the auctioneer dropped the gavel. No. 32 went to two so-called pinhookers, who buy yearlings to resell them as 2-year-olds. A man who'd been coming to these auctions for years said that was a lot of money to risk for a resale, but then Storm Cat was no ordinary sire.
A chestnut filly, No. 6, by Kingmambo out of Lassie's Lady, already had gone for what would be the night's top price, $1.35 million. A hush fell, then most began remarking on how such a big sale had been made so early in the evening. The thought occurred that Humphrey Finney would not have been surprised, knowing as he did that a bidder, when he gets close to what he wants, can be undeterred: "He's more often like the art patron who insists on having the best picture in the gallery, no matter what the price."