Sunday, September 7, 2014

A weekend of new memories at Saratoga Race Course (or, the incredible highs and lows of horse racing)

I am the introverted sort with a rich inner life and memories heavy in vivid texture, memories I like to mull over again and again like a dog-eared book. These memories encompass many aspects of my life, but the ones granted to me through horse racing are some of my favorites. And I took away several wonderful new memories from my trip to Saratoga a couple weeks ago. 

The horses suddenly emerging from the fog in full gallop at the old Oklahoma training track, manes and tails whipping in an impossible breeze. The steam rising from the backs of bathing horses and merging with the mist to create a painterly backdrop. The great old trees of the backside--their leaves silver with dew on this particular morning on this particular day--and the timeless hoof prints of the legendary horses they shaded 50, 100, and 150 years ago.

The Saratoga backside on a misty morning.

Stumbling across the champions--and potential champions--of the present era as they are bathed, grazed, or fed--seemingly trivial activities that, as a whole, are vital to the well-being of not just these horses, but horses all over the world. The shining jewel of these particular memories is my husband and I standing in the pink light of the waning sun and watching two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan eat hay in his stall in the quiet and still evening after the Travers.

2014 Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable being bathed.

Standing on the turf course by the wooden photographer's stand/standing on the roof of the grandstand and surveying Saratoga's majestic old grandstand/the sweeping dirt and turf courses as far as the eye can see.

A view of the Spa from the grandstand roof.

And of course--the races! V. E. Day and Javier Castellano mowing down Wicked Strong and Rajiv Maragh in the Travers, granting the James Jerken (son of Allen "the Giant Killer" Jerkens) barn a 1-2 finish in the historic race. Artemis Agrotera running away with her Ballerina Stakes win. Dayatthespa and Discreet Marq--two of my current favorite turf mares--finishing 1-2 in the Yaddo Stakes. Close Hatches dominating the field in a sloppy Personal Ensign.

V. E. Day runs down Wicked Strong in the Travers.

I couldn't have acquired these wonderful new memories without a few people, namely Bud, Teresa, and my husband, who is the best racetrack companion I could ask for.

(L to R) Dave from the Blood-Horse, Bud Morton, and Bob Mayberger by the photographer's stand.

The weekend was marred by tragedy, however. Thanks to Bud, I was presented with the opportunity to shoot a race from the wooden photographer's stand on the inside--no simple feat on a big race day as each step of the stand is claimed by freelance photographers and publications (I can't count how many times I tried to subtly crane my neck and read the faded writing on the tattered strips of duct tape marking each step).

It was race four of Travers Day--a maiden for two-year-olds. One couldn't find more promise anywhere than in such a race, on such a day, at such a track. I stood on Bud's step on the photographer's stand and as the horses came into view at the top of the stretch, I lifted my camera and focused on the leaders. With my lens acting as a telescope, I vividly saw the commotion halfway down the stretch--a rough jostling that resulted in two horses swinging wide and a jockey falling hard to the track. It wasn't clear what had happened but my stomach sunk. I tried to focus on the unharried race leader but my heart wasn't in it, for the number two horse--Ludicrous, a well-bred son of Medaglia d'Oro and Victory Ride--was clearly in awful distress. As his jockey laid in the dirt, Ludicrous hobbled towards the outside rail on three legs, the fourth severely broken. It was as bad a break as you can see in racing and undoubtedly fatal. The outrider rushed up to the colt and leaped off his horse, offering support to Ludicrous. The distressed colt tried to lay down but the outrider pressed against his disabled side to get him back up again, and I turned away with my heart in my stomach. The vibe on the photographer's stand was grim.

Bud--bless his heart--choose that moment to ask me if I wanted to go to the infield. I had expressed interest in photographing the Travers canoe so I agreed readily. I glanced once more at the growing scene around Ludicrous and sent silent prayers to the colt before stepping off the photographer's stand.

Ludicrous (Feb. 3, 2012 - August 23, 2014)

However, once in the infield, Bud made an unexpected stop at the grave of Go for Wand. Foaled in 1987, the bay filly started 13 times, winning ten and placing in two. Along the way she garnered wins in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies, Ashland, Mother Goose, Alabama, Test, and Beldame Stakes. In the 1990 Breeder's Cup Distaff, she locked horns with the tough distaffer Bayakoa and tragically broke down in the homestretch.

The grave of Go for Wand and the quiet NYRA flag.

Quietly, Bud told me that she had been his favorite filly. He paused then said he had been at Belmont Park "that day"--the day she broke down. After the horror of witnessing Ludicrous breaking down badly, the moment was poignant and bittersweet, and not one I will ever forget.

Turf writer Paul Moran was one of Go for Wand's biggest fans and he wrote an Eclipse Award-winning article about the race. Moran passed away last fall and his ashes were scatted on Go for Wand's grave this summer. I also recommend Barbara Livingston's lovely photographic tribute to Go for Wand, 'Remembering Wanda'.

Go for Wand

I am dedicating this post to the memory of Ludicrous, who--through an awful twist of fate--gave his life to this sport that so many of us romanticize. For among the memories of the champions, the misty mornings on the backside, the thrilling races, and the beautiful views of horses and history alike, there are the fallen, and they should also be remembered always.

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