Though it has earned the nickname of the Graveyard of Champions, horses don’t come to Saratoga to lose. The very best horses across the nation travel here to compete in the biggest collection of America’s most historic races. Saratoga celebrates its past more than any other track; patrons cannot help but be exposed to the history walking into the mouth of the grandstand—a canopy of banners hang from the ceiling with the names of all the annual major stakes races: the Whitney, the Woodward, the Alfred G. Vanderbilt, the Travers, among others; all names that have echoed through the generations and seen the greatest of the Greats. And then, above the betting windows and just before the grandstand spills onto the apron outside, one cannot help but look up and witness a giant photograph from the infamous single race the legendary Man o’ War lost. The picture stands as a reminder to bettors and horsemen alike that anything can happen on any given day at this grand old track—legends fall and new ones are born each day.
The track that celebrates its upsets as much as its champions commemorated the 47th running of the Jim Dandy Stakes my first Saturday at Saratoga. Named for the 100-1 long shot that defeated Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the Travers, the Jim Dandy featured a field of up-and-coming 3-year-olds and was won by the lightly-raced A Little Warm. Though this field was full of young horses ready to make a name for themselves, in the race before, some well-known fillies and mares threw it down in the Grade I Diana, where Breeders’ Cup champion Forever Together was defeated by the tenacious Grade I-winner Proviso over the battle-tested turf.
So well-respected are the races at Saratoga, a horse is given higher points in the breeding shed by his or her victories in these graded tests. The older the race, the more coveted it is to add to a horse’s resume as the next in a tradition of champions and heavy-hitters; a victory at Saratoga is a badge of legacy—a win here means your horse has been tested against the best the East has to offer, and gives those who would travel there a challenge worth the effort.
An immense crowd was on hand to witness the 82nd running of the Grade I Whitney Handicap the next Saturday; the hoards of spectators were not only at Saratoga to attend one of the meet’s most celebrated race days, but to be on-hand to see the showdown between two of the sport’s most talented contenders in their first meeting on the track. Picnickers arrived at the gates early in the morning to stand in line in hopes of securing a prime spot next to the paddock, and once the floodgates opened, the grounds were packed to the gills with spirited race fans.
Posing as the opening act to the big show that afternoon was the Grade I Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, and the winner, Champagne d’Oro, pumped up the crowd to full-throttle by blowing away the field to win by 4 1/2 lengths. If the packed grandstands had come to be enthralled, the horses did not disappoint Whitney day.
The air at Saratoga pulsed with anticipation in the lead-up to the Grade I Whitney. Though Quality Road was going off as the favorite, nobody was exactly sure what would develop once Blame turned on the after-burners and was sent after the champion in the stretch. It was setting up to be a real grudge match—and they were only two of the big names in the field; Musket Man, Haynesfield, and Mine That Bird were all in for the glory, as well, and if The Road resorted to his issues with the starting gate, there was no telling what might happen. As that telling photo of a horse named Upset defeating the great Man o’ War reminded us, you never could predict exactly what was going to happen in any horse race. And as the contenders walked the path into the paddock, golden beads of light dappling the hides of million-dollar horseflesh, the crowd smashed against the fences to get a better look and began to cheer when the champions strode into sight. This was Saratoga. This was what Grade I racing is all about.
Once the mammoths were led to their respective trees in the paddock, I made no hesitation in shadowing Quality Road to his post next to the saddling barn. Seeing this horse in person was one of my personal thrills during my time at Saratoga. I had never before had the privilege of seeing this three-time track record-breaker in person, and as a long-time fan, it was like standing ten feet away from Michael Jordan.
There was one instance where I was actually too close to capture the moment with my camera, even though the image of it will certainly last forever in my memory. As I squat for a low-angle shot of Quality Road rounding his assigned circle in the paddock, every hulking mass of him glinting like a sinuous tank of TNT, Blame walked the path between us. This surely was the first time the two giants had actually caught sight of each other, and I have to admit to a flock of goose bumps swept down my arms at the sight. Blame, with his utterly serene demeanor, waltzed past the imposing champion almost dismissively. “So,” I could almost hear him say with a flick of his tail. “You’re the one they’ve all been talking about? You don’t look like so big and bad.” And The Road, tossing his head in response, the red beginning to grow in his eyes, replied, “You’re going to find out why they call me ‘The Road’ once you follow me all the way home.” To say the least, the moment split the air with electricity; the crowd standing on the edge of the pathway let out a conspiratorial murmur. The race of the year was building to the absolute showdown everyone had come to see.
The anticipation continued to build, spiking into a crescendo as the horses were loaded into the starting gate in front of the grandstands. The horses must’ve been feeling that same boiling intensity, too, for Haynesfield, in the post position next to Quality Road, broke through the gate before all of the horses had been loaded. Thanks to a quick-thinking assistant starter, the horse was snatched up before he could take off, and once he was cleared for injuries, Haynesfield was re-loaded and the field broke together in a picture-perfect line. Then the crowd held their breath for a full minute as the contenders settled into position and rounded that historic course.
As Quality Road led the first half in 48:01, it was clear this wasn’t going to be another record-shattering performance by the champ, that John Velazquez was intent on stifling the chances of the late-running Blame by slowing the pace down. But as it’s probably harder to make Quality Road run slower than it is to let him roll off those hot fractions, the time only added to the drama as the field entered the final turn. When Quality Road began to round the turn for home and Velazquez began to shoot glances behind him, the crowd began to blast the roof off of the old grandstands—when a jockey is looking around for competition, that usually means he is loaded with horsepower. But Blame was coming for them on the outside, and it didn’t seem like he’d been spotted, like a sniper honing in on his target. So when Quality Road had opened up from Haynesfield and Musket Man at the top of the stretch with nothing in front of them but the open track and the howling grandstands, it seemed they were home-free.
As stated before, I had never seen The Road run in person, but I had been present to witness Blame’s past two major wins, the Grade II Clark Handicap, and the Grade I Stephen Foster; because of this prior knowledge, I knew that Blame wasn’t about to stick his head in front of the leader until the last jump before the wire. The rubber band was just beginning to launch for Blame at this point in the race, and when he was finally unleashed, The Road didn’t know what hit him. With no time to re-rally once the full-throttle of Blame was upon them, the horses ground it out in a head-to-head duel, The Road sputtering as his rival passed him by a nose at the finish line. The grandstands were in a frenzy. That was the race they had all come to see—the two Titans dogging it out in the stretch, a true fight for the glory and prestige at the grand old Spa. A warm reception greeted Blame to his coronation in the winner’s circle, where Mary Lou Whitney herself presented the winning connections with the silver trophy.
As Quality Road was led past the winner, there was a sense of a torch being passed this day at Saratoga. Though an upset it had been, Blame was no long-shot. This was him finally earning the respect the hard way—he had to conquer the warriors of several kingdoms before earning this right, defeating Einstein, Battle Plan, General Quarters, and Misremembered along the way before earning this right to take down the handicap titleholder in Quality Road.
As far as the East Coast goes, now the road is open for Blame. The next race he runs in, someone else will be challenging him. And if the Racing Gods should have it, Blame will be able to put his new crown on the line when he takes on the greatest assemblage of talent ever to break from the same gate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Who will Blame add next to his list of conquered heroes? Lookin at Lucky? Rachel Alexandra? Zenyatta? With his victory at Saratoga serving as his biggest point-of-reference, Blame is on his way to a possible clincher for Horse of the Year.
The track that makes or breaks champions will always serve as the epicenter of the sport, the barometer that measures these equine athletes. Thank God it is located in a place that reveres it as it so deserves, and gives it the respect that it commands. Though the racing meet is only six glorious weeks, the excitement and history that occurs in that short time is explosive, leaving a mark so deep and fresh in those who witness it, one cannot help but look back and think romantically of Saratoga. In a constantly-changing world that moves at break-neck speed, it is refreshing to visit a living time capsule that hearkens back to the days of old. There is something comforting about a place that has honored tradition for over one hundred years. The names and faces are different, but it’s still about a guy boasting “My horse is faster than yours,” and another guy saying, “Yeah? Prove it,” and the rush of adrenaline of watching those flesh-and-bone creatures go toe-to-toe on the track on a mid-summer’s day while a crowd roars its approval.
In fact, it doesn’t really get any better than that anywhere.
For more information on Saratoga Race Course, check out their website here at NYRA.com.
In case you missed the first part of Destination: Saratoga!, read Part I here.