Saturday, September 25, 2010

Back....But First, Saratoga Highlights

The world was new,
Beneath a blue,
Umbrella sky

--Sinatra, SUMMER WIND
Yes it was.

For forty glorious days of summer. The thoroughbreds at Saratoga. A thing of beauty, thrill and emotion. Like seeing Mickey Mantle or Joe D at the Stadium.But now it's gone. It and summer for another year. So back to school, and to courts and judges. And back to this blog. Actually, there are common denominators between watching the ponies and the courts. There are the entries (the cases), the results (the decisions), the past performances (the judges'/justices' voting and opinions), and the handicapping (hazarding some conclusions).

In the posts to come, New York Court Watcher will be reviewing the Supreme Court's last year, examining the Court's rulings and the Justices' opinion and voting patterns, and putting it all in broader context. Reviewing Sonia Sotomayor's first year will be especially interesting. Justice Stevens's last year too. The new year with newly appointed Justice Kagan as well.

We'll do the same for New York State's high court, the Court of Appeals, and its Judges. The emerging character of the [Chief Judge] Lippman Court. And we'll take a look at some other high courts around the country. Strong possibilities: Arizona (because I love Arizona) and Tennessee (because my BBQ trip with son Martin this past spring took us there and it, especially Memphis, was fabulous).

But for now, one parting reminiscence of summer and, more precisely, of Saratoga. (The "Spahhhhhhh," as Tom Durkin would say.)

Here, in my most humble view, were the highlights. The Top Ten . (Even though I already know I'll be exceeding 10, and I'll still be excluding others that should be listed.) These are not in any strict order. It's tough enough to try to limit the highlights to 10--or roughly 10. But here goes.

Blame in the Whitney
Blame caught the front running favorite, Quality Road, in the deep stretch and beat him by a neck.
Garrett Gomez rode the upset winner who was immediately catapulted in the ratings as one of the top 2 or 3 thoroughbreds currently racing. Johnny Velazquez, the winningest jockey of the Saratoga meet, rode Quality Road who had widely been viewed as THE top thoroughbred before his 2d place finish. These two 4 year olds are scheduled to meet again in the Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November--together with super California-based filly, Zenyatta. The race will almost certainly decide the Horse of the Year.

Speaking of upsets, in 1973, the great Secretariat was defeated by Onion at Saratoga in this very same Whitney.

Quality Road in the Woodward
Quality Road redeemed himself 4 weeks after the Whitney by easily winning in the Woodward. He stalked the speedster Arcodoro until the stretch when he seemed to roll almost effortlessly to a 4
3/4 length victory. This was his 3d Grade 1 victory for the year. (And it was yet another win for the Johnny V & Todd Pletcher combo of winningest Jockey and Trainer of the meet.)

The Woodward, my favorite race year after year at Saratoga or anywhere else, has long been been a showcase for champs. Last year it was Rachel Alexandra beating the boys in an historically thrilling race, from gate to wire, and earning Horse of the Year honors. The year before it was 2-time Horse of the Year Curlin. The year before that it was Lawyer Ron who, a few weeks earlier in the Whitney, set the Saratoga track record for the 1 1/8 mile distance of both races.
In previous years, the Woodward has been host to victories by the likes of Ghostzapper, Mineshaft, Lemon Drop Kid, Cigar, Holy Bull, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Forego--who won it 4 years in a row!

Discreetly Mine in the Amsterdam and the King's Bishop
Speaking of thrilling performances and horses, Discreetly Mine won back to back graded sprints for 3 year olds. Ridden by Johnny V, this router-turned-sprinter annihilated the field with an 8 3/4 lengths victory in the 6 1/2 furlong Amsterdam. He then returned less than 4 weeks later to convincingly win the 7 furlongs King's Bishop on Travers Day.
Trainer T Pletch has Discreetly Mine headed for the Breeders Cup and very possibly for honors as the 3 Year Old Sprinter of the Year.

Get Stormy in the Fourstardave and the Bernard Baruch
Another double stakes winner at the meet, the 4 year old Get Stormy actually stumbled at the start of the Fourstardave, but still managed to go gate to wire for 1
1/4 mile on the turf. Ridden again by Javier Castellano 4 weeks later, Get Stormy stalked the pace and took the lead in the stretch to win a 2d turf route in the slightly longer Bernard Baruch the day before the Travers.

Afleet Express in the Travers
OK, we've mentioned the Travers a few times, so let's get to it.
Afleet Express won (if he actually did) by a nostril (maybe a nostril hair at best) after a duel in the deep stretch over the oncoming Fly Down. It was an emotional win for trainer Jimmy Jerkins whose whose Dad, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkins ("The Chief"), had never saddled a Travers winner.
It was also emotional, as in heart-wrenching, for trainer Nick Zito who had runner ups this year in both the Kentucky Derby (Ice Box) and the Belmont (Fly Down). Ice Box didn't fire in the Travers, but Fly Down seemed to be the winner to many who watched the race. Indeed, Javier Castellano who rode the official winner and Jose Lezcano who rode the official runner up seemed entirely unsure of the outcome themselves.
IAE, a thrilling finish.

The official result of the 2008 Travers was equally uncertain, if not more so. There are many, myself included, who have watched the replay of the wire numerous times and still believe that Mambo in Seattle actually beat Colonel John. Not suggesting any hanky-panky here. Maybe the officials were looking at a much higher definition picture and spotted a stray protruding whisker.

Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign
Yes, Rachel, although the runner up, was the thrill of the race as well as the entire day. Last year's Horse of the Year following her once-in-a-lifetime spectacle winning the Woodward, Rachel returned to her throngs of Saratoga fans the day after the Travers.
Rachel ran a champion's 1
1/8 mile--the Woodward distance. She stayed ahead of the speed demon, Life at Ten, who eventually succumbed and finished more than 11 lengths behind.
Unfortunately, the Personal Ensign extends for another furlong. In the last several yards of that 1
1/4 mile route, Persistently--an optional claiming winner--who had just passed the other exhausted fillies and mares, caught and passed Rachel.
Well, everyone was disappointed. That is, except for Persistently's trainer, Shug McGaughey, and the brilliant young rider (and 2008 winningest Jockey at Saratoga), Alan Garcia.
Calvin Borel, Rachel's rider, the winner of the past 3 Kentucky Derbies, and the veritable King of Churchill Downs, compounded his disappointment with his dreadful record at Saratoga.

Champagne d'Oro in the Test
Speaking of fillies, watching the 3 year old daughter of Medagia d'Oro (also the Daddy of Rachel Alexandra) being walked to the paddock was to watch one of God's most stunningly gorgeous creatures. Yes, thoroughbreds generally are beautiful, and some truly magnificent--I feel that way, for example, when I've seen Rachel. And Champagne, like Rachel, is especially so.
IAE, this 39-1 winner of the Acorn at Belmont earlier in the year, pressed the front-running favorite, Pica Slew, and pulled away in the stretch. Ridden by Mike Smith, she won the 7 furlong sprint by 4
1/2 lengths--the exhausted favorite finishing near the back of the field.

8) Blind Luck in the Alabama
Staying with 3 year old fillies, the California-based Blind Luck, came east and showed why she is ranked atop of them all. Facing a field that included the heavily favored Devil May Care, who had won the Coaching Club American Oaks on opening weekend, Blind Luck closed late as she had done in previous races. Urged by rider Joel Rosario, she rallied from last. In deep stretch she edged Havre de Grace to win this premier 1 1/4 mile race by a neck.

9) Majesticperfection in the Vanderbilt
Facing several top graded-stakes winning sprinters--including Big Drama, Bribon, and Gayego-- the 4 year old Majestic Perfection went gate to wire over the 6 furlongs. He was never seriously threatened and won by nearly 3 lengths under a hand ride by Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. A striking performance.

Unfortunately, Majesticperfection suffered an injury during a workout a few weeks later and, following surgery, was retired.

10) Here Comes Ben in the Forego
In the other great sprint at Saratoga, held in the final week of the meet, the field was, if anything, even more impressive than in the Vanderbilt 4 weeks earlier. Included were Grade 1 winners Vineyard Haven, Bribon and Warrior's Reward, as well as Big Drama who finished 2d in the Vanderbilt. But it was Here Comes Ben who rallied from 7th to win by less than a length over 2d-again Big Drama.
The 7 furlong Forego was the 1st Grade 1 victory for the 4 year old colt as well as for his trainer, Churchill-based Charles Lopresti, who had never even run a horse in a Grade 1 before. Jockey Alex Solis encouraged the trip to Saratoga after Here Comes Ben won impressively in 4 minor races earlier this year.

11) Boys at Toscanova in the Hopeful (I said it would be more than 10!)
On the last day of the meet, in Saratoga's top race for 2 year olds, the Rick Dutrow trained Boys at Toscanova made a strong bid for leader of the juveniles. Having won his maiden at Belmont in July by 12 lengths, he was victorious here by just 1 3/4's. But
his victory seemed effortless. Jockey Ramon Dominguez barely asked him to run at any time over the 7 furlongs. He's being pointed to the Breeders Cup.

3 Horse Blanket in the 8th Race, Last Day
In an allowance race for fillies and mares over 1
1/16 mile on the turf, run immediately before the Hopeful, 3 horses hit the wire at the same time. Officially, the order was Frivolous Buck, Gitchee Goomie, and Tuti Va Bene. They might have been separated by a whisker or two, or an extended nostril or lip. Maybe, that is.
The finish was replayed over and over on the Jumbotron. There was no way to separate the 3 horses. Not without some ultra high definition microscopic photo of the finish. Maybe the officials have the requisite technology. But if that's what it takes to determine the order of the 3 blanket finishers, isn't that enough justification to call it a 3-way dead heat? Just asking.
IAE, what a thrill. That surely was among my favorite moments of the Saratoga meet.

The Saratoga meet closed once again with the sound of Sinatra bathing the Race Course in "Summer Wind."
It was fine all summer for the days to end with Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." But for the finish, got to have Francis Albert's bittersweet ode to summer memories. On repeat play. For one last walk along the rail and then for the drive home, a few times on the stereo.

God willing, see you next year Saratoga. Like lots of others, I'm already counting down.