Saturday, September 12, 2009

Courts, Judges, Cases--But First: Saratoga Highlights!!!

[Ok, I've been a bit delinquent. Fact is, I spent much of my spare time the last few weeks at the track. For those who don't know, the thoroughbred racing meet at Saratoga lasts a mere 6 weeks. 36 glorious days of the best horses, best trainers, best jockeys, best races, best caller, best crowds, most legendary race course in America. I wasn't there every day. But most.

Hey, I don't watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, NASCAR, or just about any other sport. Well, every once in a while, maybe for a few minutes. But that's about it. And, well, when I get a chance, I do love Union College hockey games--my alma mater, a few miles down the Thruway in Schenectady. But otherwise, Saratoga is really my sports passion.

So now that you know I'm a delinquent--spending time at the track when I should be researching, writing, and reporting on this blog--allow me some closure to the 2009 Saratoga meet. Before returning to the Supreme Court, the NY Court of Appeals, other high courts, justices, judges, hot-button issues and cases, let's recall some of the highlights of Saratoga. Here's my list.]

Highlights of the 2009 Saratoga Meet
(Yes, it would be neater and more conventional to do a Top Ten, or even 5 or seven. But I've reduced the list as much as I can bear. The best I could do was a Top Dozen.

And I would present my list in ascending order, from #12 to #1, to build the anticipation and suspense. But anyone who follows the ponies at all, or just Saratoga, knows darn well what #1 is going to be. So let's start at the top with that non-surprise.)

#1. Rachel Alexandra victorious in the Woodward.
The 3 year old wonder-filly beat the older boys--meaning the faster and stronger ones--to become the first filly ever to do win this Grade 1 dirt route in its 56 year history. In fact, she was the first filly to beat the older boys in any such race in well over 100 years.

And this gorgeous lady did it in extraordinary style. Under the hands of Calvin Borel, she outran and exhausted the sprinters in the first half of the race, then she remained too fast for the stalkers who tested her next, and finally she held on to beat the closers in the stretch. Among those who challenged her: Da'Tara, last year's Belmont winner; Past the Point, who just barely lost to Curlin in last year's Woodward; Bullsbay, who won the Whitney earlier in the meet; and Macho Again, a multiple stakes winning champion with a ferocious closing, who finished second to Rachel by a head.

I've never seen or heard a louder or more excited crowd. Everyone, no matter what their betting interest, no matter how much or little they knew about racing--gamblers, families, little kids, racing die-hards--screaming and jumping and dancing and yelling the name "Rachel." And when she won, it continued. For the great colts she had beaten as they returned to the stables, and ever more thunderously for her as she was led from the winner's circle, past the stands, to begin her well-deserved and, apparently, lengthy rest before racing again.

Rachel beat the 3 year old boys earlier in the year in the Preakness-leg of the Triple Crown and again in the Haskell at Monmouth Park. In the Woodward, against the older boys, she beat by far the toughest field she--or any other horse this year--has faced. The Woodward is great every year. In my view, it is the greatest race of the Saratoga meet. Last year it was won by 2-time horse of the year, Curlin. The year before, in a runaway by Lawyer Ron, who had broken the track record in the Whitney a few weeks earlier. In years past, it has been won by Cigar (twice), Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Forego (4 times), Kelso (3 times), and Sword dancer (twice). Rachel has now earned a place in the Thoroughbred Pantheon with them.

As Tom Durkin proclaimed when Rachel crossed the finish line, "She is indeed, Rachel Alexandra the Great!"

#2. Careless Jewel runs away with the Alabama. The Canadian-based gray filly won this Grade 1 dirt route for 3 year old fillies by 11 lengths. Purchased for a mere $40k, she won her 4th straight race after throwing her jockey, Robert Landry, at the post. She passed the pack around the far turn and then ran away in a thrilling--as in amazing--display of dominance. (Reminiscent of Lawyer Ron in the 2007 Whitney and Woodward.) So much so that some in the crowd were chanting, "Bring on Rachel!" Well, that might be one helluva race.

#3. Pyro reemerges in the Forego. Following a 9 month absence to recover from knee surgery, the 4 year old colt returned to Saratoga for a 2d place finish earlier in the meet. Several weeks later, he won this Grade 1 dirt sprint. In one of the meet's most exciting races (run immediately before the Woodward), Pyro stormed from behind as he usually does, rallied 5 wide past the others and outran Kodiak Kowboy in a stretch duel. Great to see him back. (A sentimental favorite. My wife and I have been following him since he was a 2 year old, and then when he was 3 and emerging as a leading contender for the Triple Crown races.)

#4. Bullsbay shocks in the Whitney. After surging through the rest of the field around the far turn, the long(est)shot 5 year old colt (19-1) won this Grade 1 dirt route by holding off the hard charging Macho Again. Two great horses in a great stretch run. (These were the 2 that chased Rachel a month later in the Woodward. Macho Again bested Bullsbay in that one however.)

The race was bittersweet. It marked the end of the line for the great New York gelding Commentator, who was retired after failing to win what would have been his 3d Whitney.

#5. Six-Way Photo Finish. On Friday, August 21, an allowance race on the turf ended with one of the most astonishing finishes in the history of the race track. After running 1 and 1/16 miles, 6 horses were mere noses apart at the finish line. The crowd cheered wildly for the historic finish they had witnessed, while the stewards sorted through the photos. Grassy, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, was eventually declared the winner--by his nose among the other 5.

#6. Summer Bird best in the Travers. Proving that his victory in this year's Belmont stakes was no fluke, the "Other Bird" won convincingly in the slop against a strong field of 3 year old colts that included Quality Road, Charitable Man, Kensei, and Warrior's reward. While his brother, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, had to pass on the Travers because of recent throat surgery, Summer Bird did the family proud by adding to the laurels of their mutual Dad, 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone.

#7. Quality Road smashes Amsterdam record. Returning from a 4-month layoff, the 3 year old colt shattered the record for this Grade 2 dirt sprint. He had been an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby after he broke the record for the Florida Derby in March.

#8. Forever Together again in the Diana. The 5 year old champion gray mare won the Grade 1 turf route for the 2d year in a row. She won the Breeder's Cup Filly and Mare Turf last fall.

#9. Fabulous Strike fastest in the Vanderbilt. The 6 year old gelding surged deep in the stretch to pass Go Go Shoot and win the Grade 2 dirt sprint against some of the fastest horses running today. Kodiak Kowboy and Benny the Bull were among the others bested in the race by Fabulous Strike.

#10. Hot Dixie Chick wins 2. The 2 year old filly wowed Saratoga this summer. She won the Grade 3 Schuylerville the first day of the meet, and the Grade 1 Spinaway the last weekend. She may well be headed toward super-fillydom, like the better known Rachel Alexandra, with whom she shares connections. They are both trained by Steve Asmussen; and Hot Dixie is owned by Barbara Banke whose husband, Jess Jackson, owns Rachel.

#11. Linda Rice wins Training Title. Yep, she's the first woman to win the leading trainer title at Saratoga. With 20 victories, she edged Todd Pletcher who had 19. He has won 6 training awards at Saratoga and 19 at New York tracks. This is her first at Saratoga or anywhere else. Together with Rachel Alexandra, Careless Jewel, Forever Together and Hot Dixie Chick, Linda Rice has made 2009 the meet of the Lady Champions.

Mention should also be made of a Guy Champ, Ramon Dominguez, who won the leading jockey title. With 45 victories, he won by a wide margin. He also won titles at Aqueduct and Belmont earlier in the year.

#12. Sinatra closing with 'Summer Wind'. The greatest thoroughbred racing venue closed with the sounds of the greatest exponent of the greatest pop songs singing, perhaps, the greatest of his pop-chart recordings. No more perfect way to end Saratoga and the summer than with the Chairman of the Board saying farewell to what came blowin' in, lingered there, and then was lost.

Until next year, Saratoga....