Horseracing at its finest
The Triple Crown gets all the pub. But nothing beats Saratoga in August.
This story appears in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The last fight I remember getting into was in seventh grade. Dennis Doran and I were below-average basketball players, and we were scrapping at the gym in order to make our mark in a pickup game. Things escalated from there. It wasn't much of a fight, something just short of when relief pitchers jog to the mound from the bullpen and pretend to join a brawl. But still.
So nearly 40 years later, a guy standing two feet away at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is preparing to take a swing at me. What incensed him was that on TV just one week earlier, I'd had the nerve to say nice things about California's storied Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
I tried to explain how I felt that it's okay to have strong feelings for both Del Mar and Saratoga, but this guy, as a devout Saratoga fan, felt violated. He backed off eventually -- he'd probably heard of my draw vs. Doran during the Ali-Frazier era -- but his wounds were apparent, because Saratoga is as much a feeling as it is a place.
There's something important going on there, and just by being in town during the 40-day meet, you are a part of it. The racing, which moves north from Belmont Park in mid-July, culminates in late August, when the top 3-year-olds in the country come to Saratoga for the Travers Stakes, aka the Midsummer Derby. As legendary Saratoga rider John Velazquez tells me, "This is where the best horses, best trainers and best jockeys come. And if you want to shine, this is the place."
I'd heard of Saratoga while growing up some 3,000 miles away in Seattle. It seemed a distant, mythical place. The kind of place where Seabiscuit raced. The kind of place Carly Simon referred to in song. Horse racing's Hall of Fame is across the street, for goodness' sake, so it had to be a big deal. And it's been so for a long time. The war between the states was raging when Saratoga opened in 1863, and the North deserved one hell of a track.
Tom Durkin has called races at Saratoga for 21 years. He is part race caller, part historian. "I was just reading yesterday," Durkin said on opening day last month, "that at the first meeting of Saratoga, there were two past presidents and a future president in attendance. You can't copy 140-odd years of history."
The look of the wooden grandstands takes you back a bit -- maybe not to the 1860s, but at least to the 1970s. That's when Seattle Slew and Affirmed won at Saratoga. Before them, so did Kelso, Buckpasser and Sword Dancer. Secretariat was upset here. Easy Goer prevailed here, as did Curlin. Rachel Alexandra beat the boys here. Everyone who's anyone has come through here, and before I moved back home to Seattle in early August, I wanted to feel the place at least once more.
It starts with the town, Saratoga Springs, one of the rare places in America where reading the Daily Racing Form in public does not get you labeled as a degenerate. Depending on budget (or expense account), you can stay in the lower-end motels just out of town and save money for racing investments, or you can pay the going rate at one of the nicer spots in Saratoga Springs. The same sliding scale is available 25 miles north on Lake George. It's possible to ride a speedboat in the shadows of the Adirondacks, then see next year's Kentucky Derby winner break his maiden at Saratoga later that afternoon.
The stables and a training track sit across Union Avenue, which explains why humans and horses share a crosswalk. The horses are led through Saratoga's picnic area behind the track and into a paddock area filled with old-growth elms. The jockeys make their way to the races by walking through the crowd. It's visceral, whatever that word means and however it's spelled.
For the Travers Stakes, the animals run the classic American distance -- one mile and one quarter -- over the same ground Man o' War covered. When other tracks moved to synthetic surfaces, Saratoga stayed put. Authentic. It's a matter of pride for those who live there or have adopted Saratoga as their own.
Why else would that guy have wanted to take a swing at me? But this is no apology letter to him. It's more of a love letter to a city and a sport I cherish. And 3,000 miles won't keep us apart.
Kenny Mayne is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN The Magazine: August 22, 2011