The very confused butterfly that fluttered about the main track. Just because you’re black and yellow like Man o’ War was doesn’t make you special, you dang drunk arthropod!
A special thanks go out to fourfurlongs who spent the entire weekend with me!
There are roughly 28932897271 things I could feasibly complain about from my 3-day excursion to Saratoga’s first, second, and third days of the 2014 meet. But, seeing as most of them are self-inflicted (i.e. the consequences of forgetting sunblock, sleeping in too late to catch some decadent racing stars in the morning), I will instead focus on the many things I loved about my trip. Thank you to work and my 10-day horse babysitting sentence for making this post later than ideal!:
Frankie Dettori’s flying dismounts I felt so privileged getting to see one of the best jockeys in the world ride at Saratoga this weekend, especially after learning people have been begging him for decades to come over for the short summer meet. It definitely seemed to pay off, as Dettori won not one but two races on opening day (and almost a third!) and gave everyone in the crowd a thrill by doing his famous “flying dismounts” off the winner. What a guy. I will certainly remember this for a long long time.
The ducks of Congress Park
I visited Congress Park for the first time back in May, but going back to this adorable little park in the midst of downtown Saratoga Springs was a joy, with plenty of new baby ducks waddling around. They are impressively tame thanks to the friendly humans who feed them (by the way, such an act is strongly discouraged due to the current duck population), ultimately letting me near a few of them as I sat with my people sipping some cool smoothies while complaining about life. I love complaining, you love complaining, and don’t pretend like you don’t!
Somali Lemonade winning the Diana Stakes (I)
I made a gallant effort trying to whittle down who I liked for the Diana Stakes (I), but no lie it was way too freaking hard for me to even think about going for the late pick 4 as I originally planned. Super handicapper Ciara and I agreed that Stephanie’s Kitten had a tremendous chance to get back into top form, but that there were simply too many horses that had a big chance to win. So, when in doubt, go for the heart pick! With Michael Matz being my #1 favorite trainer, while I didn’t think she could win, it was Somali Lemonade and Discreet Marq in my cheering camp (Clement is my #2 favorite). Unbelievably, it was Somali Lemonade at 11-1 odds who had the best stride in the stretch, holding off Stephanie’s Kitten and dismissing all the rest to win. SO. PROUD.
Reuniting with some good friends
You know who you people are! I hadn’t seen Ciara since the Belmont, Tory since the Wood Memorial, and Danica since the 2012 Belmont! I enjoyed reminiscing and chatting about ponies all weekend with them.
Tourist and Ring Weekend running 1-2 in the Sir Cat Stakes
It comes as little surprise that I was in Tourist's cheering squad when the colt made his stakes debut on opening day, seeing as he was one of the special few to be included in a GHR Derby Watch piece. God, that horse was beautiful as a two-year-old, and has really muscled out as a three-year-old. In what would become one of the weekend’s best performances, the Tiznow colt took to the lead and drew away in the stretch to just miss the track record mark by .12 seconds with Ring Weekend, a horse I thought highly of this spring, clipping off the rest of the classy group late in the game. Don’t mess with Tapits!
Meeting Barbara Livingston
Barbara needs little introduction as the Ansel Adams of horse racing photography. Thanks to Ciara I kind of got the inside path to officially meeting the fantastic lady, who is so tremendously nice. I’M NOT WORTHY BUT HI!
Nearly choking on my dinner while making of fun of people
I freakin’ love diners: THE kind of place to go if you want to avoid mass crowds, you’re starving, and you’re deaf to “normal” feeding schedules. I don’t know how it came up or how we were able to name so many situations, but it came to our attention that a book could be written about things people who don’t know that much about racing do/say/wear when they go to the track. It’s practically unavoidable.
The red summer dawn at Oklahoma
"Wow look at that light!" Picking a seemingly perfect morning at the Oklahoma training track to go shoot photos, the Saturday AM sunrise cast this gorgeous reddish glow over a clear, fast going with some light fog over the turf course. Absolute stunner!
Crown Queen’s romp over the grass
In a race that was chock full of really amazing trainers and even more impressive pedigrees—a half sister to Wicked Strong, two European-breds, a Stuart Janney filly I took an earlier liking to (Cloture!), and a Ramsey-owned Kitten’s Joy— Sunday’s ninth was a 1 3/16 mile turf allowance for fillies and mares that looked extremely promising from the get go. But it all fell to one horse shortly after the field rounded the far turn, and she just about crumpled the field without being asked or urged. Crown Queen, the half sister of Royal Delta, obliterated the classy allowance field with little effort, garnering smiles all around from her connections. WATCH OUT FOR HER!
The Diana Stakes (I) was the result of a horse trying her hardest and winning, an honest trainer believing in her, and an oft criticized jockey proving his worth… and of course, all of her caretakers and connections! Congrats to Somali Lemonade!
Remembering favorites from 2012. The toxins and the endorphins had to be released from my system…
While I was still sans-betting account, I would typically only watch a little bit of racing on TVG (when you live with four other people who are habitual TV mongers, it is a rare occurrence to be able to watch horse racing for an afternoon). It was August the 15th, a day after I turned 22, and I was tuning into the Saratoga races which is one of my favorite tracks. The track was soupy and the field was small for the historic Saratoga Special (II). I had scant knowledge of the competition, although obviously the Todd Pletcher trained son of Unbridled’s Song, Stat, was the favorite. Going over the field on Equibase, I immediately favored the horse with the Michael Matz connections named Union Rags because to me, if Michael thinks a young two-year-old is ready for a stakes, rain or shine, he’s going to be the one to beat regardless of the tote. I remembered Barbaro for an instance, and how slowly that star gained his power transitioning into a three-year-old. Rags was a respectable 3-1 at post time.
I was going against my aversion to rail horses in picking Union Rags for the win, and sight unseen, I was naturally pleased to see on TV that he was this big, hulking bay colt with a shock of white on his face. He went to challenge the lead and won big by 7 lengths, all despite the off track and a terrible case of swerving in the stretch. It was in that instant I knew I found my Derby horse for 2012.
Rags duplicated that awesome wide win margin in the Champagne Stakes (I), showing his ability on a fast track while coming from behind a wall of horses at the top of the stretch. If he wasn’t a favorite for the best juvenile already, his 5-length beat-up of Alpha sealed the deal.
The buildup to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) was slow and personally painful. Apart from the Classic and the Turf Mile, there was no greater anticipation mounting than that for the Juvenile race. Despite the non-graded status and rankness, the one I was watching out for was Hansen, another colt I was able to catch blitzing his challengers on TVG one afternoon. It felt too ironic to be true, being able to catch my two favorites on TVG without having heard or seen them before. Could Hansen keep that speed burning for another sixteenth? Between Union Rags and Hansen, I could scarcely pick which one I liked more. With Hansen, you had sheer brilliance and mythical beauty. With Union Rags, the build of a champion with the modesty typical of his Pennsylvania roots. Because of a freakish Halloween blizzard, my power was knocked out for the entire Breeders’ Cup week, but by far the Juvenile Colts had the most electrifying race. Rags swerved again and again, looking like a duck on dry land trying to catch Hansen. Failing at the wire, I was shocked soon again when Hansen won the Eclipse Award by a landslide. How? Why? Did no voter see the raw potential in Rags had he just had a better trip, or a longer distance? Had I been asked in January to rank my top three, it would have gone Union Rags, Hansen, Alpha in that order.
2012 reeked of redemption, and originally, I thought it was going to be all Union Rags to take back his top spot without dispute. Hansen endured a tough beginning to take second in the Holy Bull (II), setting up early doubt for Rags’ comeback in the Fountain of Youth (II). Between the long layoff, his infamous swerving, and an unexpected jockey change to Julien Leparoux, he would receive a brickload of scrutiny. Sure enough, he was sent off a relatively soft 6-5 at Gulfstream Park. With $20 of my own on his nose to win, favored Discreet Dancer folded early as Rags took his patented loop around the wall at the top of the stretch. Never asked, he won by 4 lengths and unofficially vindicated himself post-Eclipse awards.
After that winning ride, it seemed the patient Leparoux was perfect for Rags. An unhurried, top rider on the grass in Kentucky, he didn’t seem to feel too concerned about any of Rags’ opposition, taking to Twitter that the horse was incredible and that he would make everyone proud on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Seated in Stella Artois-sponsored pants, Leparoux would spoil Rags’ second chance at a $1 million first prize in the Florida Derby (I), getting caught immediately behind a wall of horses while making little to no effort from there to get away. Ex-rider Castellano pinned them inside the entire time in a move Leparoux should have anticipated— Castellano knew Rags and was on the second-choice El Padrino. Making up ground late, he was unable to catch front-runner Take Charge Indy and a modest stretch run from Reveron kept him in third. His reputation was soiled, and not a single person in the Rags trench loved Leparoux that day. It was a greenhorn incident that should have never happened.
Despite the loss and the rise of new stakes winners— Dullahan, Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another— Union Rags was named the second-choice betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby, just behind Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister. His conquerors in the field were sent off at surprisingly lesser odds; Hansen was 10-1 on the morning line while Take Charge Indy took in 15-1 odds. The reasoning behind the odds wasn’t just fan-inspired mania, for a Union Rags nod seemed to have its appeal to even the most discriminating gambler: He had never been passed in the stretch, had never shown his full measure, and physically looked the part of a Derby winner. The drawbacks, however, were just as obvious: he’s been too frequently plagued by bad luck and jockey error (while retaining Leparoux) and wasn’t fast enough at the break to be safe from the #3 post. The odds bounced around from a few dollars for a five to 6-1 on and off Derby day, settling on 5-1 at post time. I was uneasy the most at the sight of the #3 spot— no matter what the connections said at the time, I hated hated hated his chances that close to the inside despite being a leisurely runner at the break. Sure enough, Rags was shoved out of contention early at the break. It was difficult to watch the rest of the race, but impossible to dismiss the top 3 runners with winner I’ll Have Another biting down hard in the stretch once again to overpower Bodemeister. The California invader would do it again in the Preakness, and perhaps out of blind infatuation, I was unable to fully appreciate IHA because I was so distracted by Union Rags.
Come June, I was ready to admit that I’ll Have Another was a fine horse. He had won two classics over a very good horse in Bodemeister, all after having an excellent California campaign over tough competition. Considering how much I liked a similar underdog in Funny Cide after he defeated my favored Empire Maker, I’m still not sure why I didn’t replicate that love for I’ll Have Another, who always ran with his heart on his shoulder and his ears forward. Plans were made to go to the Belmont Stakes for the first time, and while I felt guilty about it, there was no question that I was going to be rooting for Union Rags, who once again, wore the unlucky #3.
Was he a blind favorite? Yes, considering my history. But was he was a valid favorite? I certainly thought so. He had the correct build of a distance-seeking Belmont horse and made his best moves late. Plus, he was getting one of the smartest jockeys around with John Velazquez. Dullahan was scary coming into the race fresh as well, and I admit now that I dismissed Paynter as a “too much, too soon” entry. I thought Street Life had a good chance as well… the rest of the field had something to prove. I swore if I’ll Have Another won, there would be no more senseless personal grudges. There would be no longshot winner this year, of that much I was certain.
Optimizer balked before jetting to what would become his new favorite spot in a race— the lead!— in the Belmont Stakes.
The surplus that was guaranteed to fill Belmont to the rafters vanished on Saturday, as I’ll Have Another was scratched two days prior to his magnum opus. A modest 85,000 came to the race, and those wise enough to bring rain gear were rewarded, as it drizzled on and off all day. My winners for the day were few and far between, and as the race drew near I began to get a little nervous. Am I going to jinx him by being here? Or worse yet, telling everyone that asks that he’s going to win? Unstoppable U was the wise guy pick, Dullahan the favorite alongside Union Rags. A family friend who frequently hit the Belmont trifecta every year was going with Paynter. How much nervous energy was I wasting on all this, possibly to pan out to disappointment? I hadn’t slept the night before, and was already exhausted from the elements, the excitement, and the arduous ride over the Throgs Neck to Long Island. I reminded myself again: Never passed in the stretch.
The post parade began after what felt like an eternity. Street Life, the apple of my eye for the latter half of the Triple Crown trail, was adorable in person, as was my dearest underdog of the trail, Atigun. Optimizer was being a brute and refused to go into the gate. Five Sixteen was docile under Rosie Napravnik. Guyana Star Dweej was placid and homely. Unstoppable U shined, his gray coat matching the overcast skies. Ravelo’s Boy was long in body and low to the ground. My Adonis, the smallish chestnut, was last to go in to his outside post. A breath later, they were off and the long wait began for the horses to come back around again.
Photo ops of Rags were few and far between in the post parade, but he looked ready!
Disheartened to see Street Life get away poorly, my attention shifted nervous to Union Rags who yet again was behind horses on the inside, but was optimistically farther up than usual. Paynter setting the pace… Optimizer’s up front? That’s weird… Dullahan is far back… Not a whole lot changed during the race, but as they approached the far turn, Rags began crawling closer to the leaders. I readied my camera as they moved towards the homestretch, taking my eyes off the monitor as I settled in for a good clean shot. As they came nearer, the crowd began to rumble and I zoomed in as far as my focal length would allow. Through my viewfinder, I could see the blue-and-yellow silks of Paynter… Atigun was trying hard to keep up on the outside… and THE BLAZE FACE OF UNION RAGS WAS COMING THROUGH ON THE INSIDE!
The excitement was too much of a rush to handle. It felt like the entire grandstand was standing behind me, shouting for one or the other to prevail, the vibration humming through the fabric of my clothes. Rags drew even with Paynter within leaps of the wire and I dropped the camera.
The moment I lost my mind when I saw that blaze pop through…
Aaaaaand there goes my camera…
So I didn’t get a very good, clear shot of Union Rags. But I did get to cash a win bet that day, and experience one of the most amazing moments ever as a fan. Getting to go to Belmont Park was an experience in itself, but I felt all my work and faith was validated that day. Using your heartstrings isn’t a viable betting strategy in the long term, but betting the horse with the most heart often is.
While there was no chance I was ever going to miss going to that race, the memento of it became doubly important after what happened next. In July, Union Rags was injured and off for the rest of the year, and then retired permanently shortly after that announcement was made. I can count on one hand the number of moments that caused me to need to take a day away from the sport, and that instance cost me a day of seclusion. I had only known him for 11 months though I got to see his final and greatest moment. The way it ended so abruptly all felt extremely unjust.
Unfortunately, like many sports, horse racing is a business and its athletes are exposed to serious injury even in the simplest of warmups. Just as I expected, the 2012 Triple Crown trail was memorable, though not in the same way I expected. I missed seeing Rags quite a bit for the rest of the year, but if I was to be honest with myself, I don’t think he could have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year. He went out on a high note, and I trust he will have a successful future as a sire. Not too many are going to be able to creep by Paynter at his best!
In the meantime, I’m still watching the Matz barn like a hawk.
Two horses I liked and subsequently bet on at Saratoga this summer were FULL siblings— both trained by Michael Matz. Two-year-old Fredericksburg by Speightstown and out of the Dynaformer daughter Choreograph, rallied impressively to be fourth while older sister Dancing To Town nearly wired the De La Rose Stakes to finish 3rd. Both raced on the same day when I was there. How did I miss this until now? Still, pretty coolness!
Speaking of the devil, Fredericksburg is looking super down in Florida and I am trying to continue to muffle my enthusiasm that he can do dirt just as well if not better than grass. Fellow Matz trainee Bustle— whom I covered in an Early Bird Watch— is training pretty well too and will be racing on Thursday.
Yeah I have a little trainer bias sometimes… Matz, Clement, Brown, Mott, Motion, Tagg… but whatever!
More Than Ready was an accomplished dirt sprinter in his time, winning the 2000 King’s Bishop (I) and a string of other stakes like the Hutcheson (II) and Sanford (II). Ironically though, he is considered to be a top sire of turf ponies who can get a good distance.
It wouldn’t be a real Derby list if there weren’t a couple nice fillies to watch (and hope) for, and it wouldn’t be a real Derby list by me if there weren’t any Michael Matz horses to watch. Consider two birds killed with one stone.
While More Than Ready traditionally sires excellent turf horses, he was adept at dirt himself and has sired plenty of graded winners on that surface as well, with his progeny including Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Regally Ready, Turf Juvenile winner Pluck, and Turf Juvenile Filly winner More Than Real. His daughter Bustle commanded attention recently when she broke her maiden at Delaware Park, romping home on the dirt by 7 lengths out in front after the originally one-mile turf test was moved to the main track under a driving rainstorm. She is the first foal from the lightly-raced Vanquished, who is sired by Belmont winner Empire Maker and out of Critical Crew, thus making her a half to millionaire Critical Eye who won multiple graded stakes on both turf and dirt. The More Than Ready/Unbridled influence has yielded a high success rate on both dirt and grass overall internationally.
Even more special is the background connection that may make this particular filly’s progress tick: she is owned and bred by Michael’s wife, Dorothy Matz. Dorothy is no stranger to the world of Thoroughbred racing, as her grandfather Robert Kleberg having owned King Ranch (the entity that raced 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault and 1950 Derby winner Middleground) and she’s been an owner since the ’80s with modest success stories trained by her husband. Her background as a breeder is even more promising, having bred G1 winner Offlee Wild.
However, I realize no matter how you angle it, Bustle remains a tough sell. She ran fifth in a Saratoga maiden featuring winner Dreaming of Julia back in August, but to be honest, that was also her first start and she looked like she was trying to feel out her bearings. Her second start was a terrible, tiring trip on grass and on her third try she bested the rest on dirt, but who knows how to rate that field in a rainstorm on an off-track.
There was no stopping Teeth of the Dog and Joel Rosario winning the Easy Goer Stakes in a romp! He took the distance cut-back well! Fast Falcon got up for second, Politicallycorrect third. (Photo by Dawna Wood/GallopingHatRack.com)
Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.