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Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Memories of the 40 days at Saratoga

By Bob Ehalt

For all of the talk about and focus on time in racing, it doesn’t slow the inevitable passing of one day into another.

It seems like only yesterday that it was July 22 and Saratoga was enjoying another festive opening day, yet the reality is that 40 days have once again flown by faster than one of Zenyatta’s stretch runs and another glorious season of racing at the Spa has been entered into the record books.

In some quarters, attendance and wagering figures will determine if the word “success” can be attached to the meet, yet for fans and lovers of the sport, a Saratoga season cannot be measured in such clerical terms.

It’s the memories you take away from an oasis like Saratoga that matter most and 2011 did not disappoint in that regard. The quality of racing may not have been what it was a couple of decades ago when there were fewer dates and races, but the memories were as satisfying as ever.

Here’s one blogger’s look back at a half-dozen moments that made 2011 another celebration of equine delight at the Spa.

No. 1: Mike Repole’s Travers Day

Can’t believe many owners have ever had the kind of day that Mike Repole did on Aug. 27. Other owners have won more races on a single day at Saratoga, but Repole was at center stage for what were arguably the two biggest moments of the meet.

The first, in chronological order, came when Uncle Mo returned to the races for the Long Islander in the King’s Bishop, the stakes right before the Travers. Uncle Mo was viewed as another Secretariat in the winter, but didn’t even run in a single Triple Crown race due to a liver ailment that was viewed as the cause for his first defeat, a third-place finish in the Wood Memorial.

The King’s Bishop was Uncle Mo’s first race since that disappointing April afternoon at Aqueduct, and there was wide-spread anticipation and excitement over his return to the racetrack in the seven-furlong stakes.

In the end, Uncle Mo was a short racehorse, losing in the final stride to Caleb’s Posse. It was a gutsy and promising effort, though a victory over older horses the following day at Del Mar by another quality 3-year-old who had not raced since April, The Factor, showed that “Mo” isn’t what he used be. At least not yet, anyway.

Then, less than an hour after that crushing loss, Repole was screaming his lungs out over a win by his “other 3-year-old,” Stay Thirsty in the Travers. It wasn’t the script that was envisioned back in the winter, but in the end the native New Yorker came away with his orange and blue colors on the infield canoe and a prize he had dreamed about since he started sneaking into OTB’s as a teenager.

It was a day that encompassed the raw emotions of a rollercoaster ride for Repole and showed how quickly and wildly hopes and dreams can rise and fall at the Spa.

No. 2: Havre de Grace’s victory in the Whitney

It lacked the drama of Rachel Alexandra’s triumph in the 2009 Woodward, but Havre de Grace’s win over the boys in this year’s edition of the Grade 1 stakes was more business-like and impressive. She didn’t hang on like Rachel did. She was simply better than the colts chasing her. Case closed.

Taking the battle of the sexes implications out of the equation, the win heightened interest in the Havre de Grace-Blind Luck rivalry and amped up the chatter about this year’s rumble for Horse of the Year honors.

It was a fantastic performance by a fleet filly, and above all, a fabulous memory.

No. 3: Sean Avery wins the Alfred G. Vanderbilt

I’m not a big hockey fan so it wasn’t the name of the victorious horse that mattered to me. What stood out was everything rolled into a race that in so many ways embodied the essence Saratoga.

An odds-on favorite, in this case Trappe Shot, losing to a 17-1 shot named Sean Avery by the slimmest of margins after a thrilling stretch drive.

How many times has that happened over at Saratoga? Got an hour or two? And each time it does, it only reinforces the storied reputation of a track known as “The Graveyard of Favorites.”

Add in a heartwarming element, in that it was the first Grade 1 stakes win for trainer Allen Iwinski, who in 2004 had stopped training for a few years due to a severe case of hepatitis, and it was a race that delivered a perfect blend of drama and emotion.

No. 4: John Velazquez winning the Angel Cordero Award

Considering he was the regular rider for the meet’s leading trainer and owner, it wasn’t much of a surprise that John Velazquez finished as the leading rider. But it was still a nice touch to see an award named after Angel Cordero Jr. go to the jockey who has been mentored by Cordero and who employs him as an agent.

No. 5: Tizway takes the Whitney

Tizway looked like the nation’s best older horse in winning the Met Mile back in May and he was equally impressive in capturing the meet’s showcase event for the handicap division.

We still don’t know how he’ll fare at 10 furlongs in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or Breeders’ Cup Classic, but right now if someone is going to stop a filly from becoming a third straight distaff Horse of the Year choice, Tizway looks like that guy.

It was also nice to see trainer James Bond finally return to the Saratoga winner’s circle after a Grade 1 stakes. Bond was one of New York’s top trainers in the late 1990’s but his stable has been quiet in recent years until Tizway brought him back into the limelight.

No. 6: Mabou wins the NY Turf Writers Cup

These eyes had spotted Mabou in his first race at the Spa, a steeplechase claimer on Aug. 4, largely because he had won his previous start an a jumper by a mind-boggling 82 lengths.

Then, in a 5th-place finish as the 8-5 favorite in the claimer, he took late money, which earned him a spot on the New York Hot List, a handicapping service I co-founded, and prompted me to study the chart of that race. What stood out was that Mabou had been claimed by David Jacobson, a flat trainer, for $30,000.

It didn’t seem to make sense, especially when Jacobson brought the 8-year-old gelding back in a Grade 1 steeplechase stakes, the New York Turf Writers Cup on Aug. 25.

Being true to the List, a few dollars were bet on him, but little was expected of him.

But then Mabou, in perhaps the most stunning result of the meet, went out and won the Turf Writers Cup, paying $35.20 for Jacobson’s first steeplechase win.

It was a nice payday, but what added to the astonishment was finding out that Jacobson was merely following in his late father’s footsteps at the claiming box.

Buddy Jacobson was one of New York’s best and most controversial trainers in the 1960’s. He was New York’s top trainer for five years but was also involved in a work stoppage at Aqueduct and in the aftermath of that flap was denied stall space for five years for a violation of state rules. He later was convicted of second-degree murder in a love triangle and died while serving a 25-year prison term.

Yet with a race horse, Buddy Jacobson had few peers, and often he would claim a jumper and win with him. One year, he was so good at it that he was Saratoga’s leading steeplechase trainer, something that resonated with his son when he saw Mabou’s past performances.

“I can’t believe I’m standing here,” Jacobson said in the winner’s circle after the Turf Writers Cup. The win was also the first graded stakes win for him since 2007, when he stopped selling real estate and ended a 25-year absence from the sport. “It goes back about [45] years to my father. My father was very successful claiming jumpers here at Saratoga. I owe it all to him.”

Of the 400 or so stories associated with the winners of races at Saratoga this year, that might have been the most unlikely -- one of New York’s top claiming trainers dusting off a strategy from more than 40 years ago and beating Jonathan Sheppard and Thomas Voss in a $100,000 jump race.

Only at Saratoga.

Don’t you miss it already?