Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cross-Country Notes From Tracktown, USA

HRI is delighted to have an old friend visit, however briefly

For a time, Saratoga was as close as eight furlongs away, and as far away as New Jersey, North Carolina and Washington D.C.

As the meet proceeds into its 149th season, it’s farther away than ever. And that sorta’ bums me out.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t think it ever would!

Despite the tweets, YouTube HD videos of every race, it could never replace putting on a pair of slacks, a button-down shirt, tie and blazer and rubbing shoulders in the paddock with Lukas, Rice, Zito, as if it were 2008 again, and this rookie named Chad Brown won the first race of that meet and be its leading trainer for the next 29 minutes.

Eight years later and he was the record holding winner of 40 races, supplanting Todd Pletcher in a Saratogian Game of Thrones.

But all this is in the recent past. I live in Eugene, Oregon, nicknamed Tracktown for Nike, renown for Steve Prefontaine and the Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Having lived in Saratoga Springs, that nickname makes me laugh now.

Saratoga has a way of infecting you with a kind of bug. In 2002, my good buddy Pete introduced me to the Spa. We obsessively visited the cute girl at Window 180, or thereabouts, just home from college with shiny brown hair, a fluorescent smile and a sexy aplomb for typing in bets—no misogyny intended.

I had never been to anything greater than a greyhound race up until then, but something fundamentally changed in my DNA after seeing the horses come off the far turn as I leaned into the fence at the top of the stretch.

There’s a turkey vulture at the Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene which must have been imprinted by humans while it was young. It actually thinks it is human, not fowl. That’s what happened to me at the top of the stretch that August day at the Spa when cold beer turns lukewarm in about 1:01 and change.

Whenever I took a rookie to Saratoga I walked them over to the top of the stretch and allowed their senses take over:

Hear the rumble. Here, they rumble.
Feel the vibration of the hooves.
See the crystalline image of a stampede in full drive.
Smell the sweat as they walk back up the homestretch to their cozy shedrows after giving it the old college try.
Taste the blood from your cheeks because you hadn’t even known you were chewing as you listened to the horses blowing Category 5 air out their nostrils.

That kid who saw his first horse race in 2002 would, six years later, be covering the meet for The Saratogian, the hometown newspaper. When Commentator won the Whitney, Nicholas P. Zito planted an Italian kiss on that kid’s cheek just outside the winner’s circle.

What a gift; to have access to the backstretches where the real work gets done. What a gift watching them all at work: the horses, the trainers, the riders, the grooms.

But then I had to run my mouth. I was mad the paper that wouldn’t let me cover the 2009 Triple Crown. I called them cheap and the Publisher didn’t like that. The Publisher fired me. I paid the price for looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Two employed reporters and a recently unemployed one on food-stamps were on the backside one morning when the Preakness winner had one of her first Saratoga breezes.

You know her; went by the name of Rachel Alexandra.

Those three notebook-toting guys would grow 10, 20 or 30-fold after she won the Haskell Invitational one Sunday at The Shore and the drama was starting to build: Where would the filly run next, and against whom?

I was there for all of it, 10 to 12 hours a day at Saratoga Race Course, following all those people around. The amorous Zito; then President Charlie Hayward. Calvin Borel. And Rachel.

What a gift that was.

But when you spend that much time doing any one thing, you’re bound to flame out.

I knew this was a magical place but I couldn’t see that anymore.

In fact, shortly thereafter, I couldn’t go near the place. Add to that that I hated—and still hate—a sport in which its athletes can routinely suffer an injury and die.

Sad, too, because it heard it over and over again: “That’s part of the game.” And so my hatred became justified to me: I hated the game while increasingly loving the player, an animal of such athletic liquidity and heart.

I took family to the top of the stretch, to that magical spot on the rail when a Ken McPeek-trained filly, Charming Hour, stepped wrong and broke her front leg that now was flapping in the wind.

Dirty and bloodied, she hobbled over to the outside fence. She was just a baby, two years old. Just beginning and now just ending. Kids were crying. Adults were crying; my stomach doing backflips. The screens came out. That’s part of the game, too, they said.

I grew increasingly resentful of the sport. Wrote about it only for the money, and not much money at that. How much is money worth anyway when a part of you dies?

I watched American Pharoah win the Triple Crown from an apartment in New Jersey. It dropped me to my knees. I can feel the chills up my back right now. It was akin to falling in love again.

A year later, 2016, Pete, my ol’ buddy who brought me to the track in 2002 but now is married with two kids going on three, a friend I barely see and almost never talk with but who set up the annual trip to Saratoga

We sit there with his brother, another friend, surrounding a cooler full of dark rum, ginger beer, lime wedges, G2 Gatorade and Miller Lite, past performances strewn all over the place like the bottom of some bird cage. I handicap, I don’t play, but I like this.

Now suddenly I had a job interview. I texted Pete, said I couldn’t make it. I was partly relieved, a guilt-ridden relief. I didn’t feel like driving five hours to a place where my feelings are so mixed, even if it meant not seeing my pal of 25 years.

Pete wrote back: “Well, I miss my old buddy B.O. I was really excited for this trip and now it’s shot.”

That felt like crap, compost-toilet crap. So I made a call and moved the interview.

“You old dog. Very glad to hear it,” Pete wrote back.

And so I made the drive and went to the track that hugs you like some mom.

We watched on flat-screens now, from the finish line. We watch from the top of the stretch, cold-turning-warm beers in our hands. We lean back, look at the grandstands. We smell the brats wafting in the air, french fries, too.

And then we see the tops of people’s heads, buried in past performances. Time for a toast, using more words than ever should be necessary.

And then it hit me: Saratoga never was about the horses, the athletes, the gambling, the food.

No matter where you are in the country, whether it’s by a paddock, the top of some homestretch, Section X on the track apron, placing Pick 3s with the cute girl--even if there’s no line at a neighboring window--just to see her smile. Because Saratoga is about home.

At no time is that more apparent than now, 2,930 miles away, two Tracktowns separated by the expanse of an entire country. It's the real Tracktown, home, that I'm missing now.

Brendan O'Meara
Author, "Six Weeks in Saratoga:
Host of the #CNF podcast: subscribe!
Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Smarty’s Belmont Controversy: The Aftermath, Part V

Smarty Jones’ bid at the Triple Crown ended just a length short. Years later, the memory remains, and so too does Smarty’s resonant effect on the world of horse racing.

Four years later Big Brown was a live threat to win the Triple Crown. The memory of Smarty’s run was still fresh in everyone’s mind. He was the last horse that had a chance to do it.

Pat Forde, an ESPN.com senior writer then, wrote a piece titled “Ganging up on favorite isn’t unimaginable at Belmont.”

The idea is sinister. It’s sporting sacrilege. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Would someone actually enter the Belmont Stakes with the intention of making massive favorite Big Brown lose the Triple Crown rather than with the intention of seeing his own horse win?

Smarty Jones’ bid at the Triple Crown ended just a length short. Years later, the memory remains, and so too does Smarty’s resonant effect on the world of horse racing.

Four years later Big Brown was a live threat to win the Triple Crown. The memory of Smarty’s run was still fresh in everyone’s mind. He was the last horse that had a chance to do it. Pat Forde, an ESPN.com senior writer then, wrote a piece titled “Ganging up on favorite isn’t unimaginable at Belmont.”

The idea is sinister. It’s sporting sacrilege. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Would someone actually enter the Belmont Stakes with the intention of making massive favorite Big Brown lose the Triple Crown rather than with the intention of seeing his own horse win?

Forde harkened back to Smarty Jones. “Roy Chapman, owner of the last horse to arrive in New York with a shot to win the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones, went to his grave in 2006 convinced that Smarty’s ’04 Belmont defeat was a setup. He believed elite jockeys Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis engaged in suicidal tactics designed to make the big horse fail.

“I never saw two riders ride so hard to lose a race in my life,” Chapman growled one week after his colt lost the Crown in deep stretch to Birdstone. “They just were out for one thing: making sure Smarty didn’t win.”

Hennig, trainer to Eddington, the horse who burned the most out of Smarty Jones down the backside, said, “Nowhere is it written in the rules that if a horse is going for the Triple Crown, everyone should just let him do as he pleases.”

Bailey never rode Eddington again. There’s a saying that some trainers, who are confident in their riders, tell their jocks ride the horse like you own it. “Ride your horse like you own it and the rent’s due,” like Servis told Elliott.

It appeared Bailey took too many liberties in that regard. On the day of the Calder Derby later in 2004, Eddington needed a rider and Bailey was available, but he didn’t get the mount from Hennig.

Servis thought that story made perfect sense. That sums it up. He even heard that Hennig wanted to kill Bailey after that Belmont, something Hennig either failed to remember or didn’t care to.

Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown, said leading up to the 2008 Belmont, “I think that the connections of Smarty Jones were not smart in order to get their job done for the Belmont. They should have played it a lot safer, a lot better.”

Dutrow also criticized Elliott’s ride in the Preakness, “I also feel he did not need to win the way he did in the Preakness to get to the Belmont.”

Elliott tapped Smarty once at the top of the stretch. He accelerated in a hand ride while the other horses backed up. It wasn’t as taxing as it might have looked. “He handled [the Preakness] great,” Servis told a reporter. “[Smarty] licked the tub dry.”

Elliott took the slings and arrows in stride. He remembered Dutrow saying those nasty things. Elliott was convinced that Smarty won the Preakness easily. He thought they were in good shape for the Belmont. He didn’t overdo it. You get beat on a favorite and people boo you. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the game.

Other jockeys came out in support of Elliott, Servis, and Smarty. One said, “I have been a jockey for seventeen years and have always had a lot of respect for Jerry Bailey. His ride in the Belmont Stakes, however, on a live contender, was a disgrace to horse racing. Bailey sacrificed himself only to beat Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott.”

Steve Haskin, a writer for Blood-Horse magazine, noted, “They apparently were on a suicide mission, targeting Smarty Jones at the expense of their own mounts … By the time Smarty neared the quarter pole, he was rolling on the lead, increasing his margin with every stride. The crowd, now in a frenzy, never noticed the mile and a quarter fraction of 2:00.52, which would have won every Kentucky Derby but four.

“When Smarty vanned to Belmont Park, three helicopters hovered overhead. Motorcycle police escorts arrived. But, like Zito said earlier in the Triple Crown season in reference to his own horses, “Great expectations bring great disappointment.”

Smarty Jones sired his first Grade 1 winner in 2013 after starting his breeding career in 2005. Horses have a limited shelf life to prove themselves as a stallion. They have until their first crop of three-year-old colts or fillies. After that major breeding operations grow impatient. As brilliant as Smarty was on the racetrack, his offspring never quite lived up to expectations.

Nobody knew that in 2004, although there may have been signs. His sire, Elusive Quality, was a miler. His broodmare sire, Smile, was a champion sprinter. Stamina just wasn’t in Smarty’s chomosomes.

After the 2004 Preakness, major breeding operations in Kentucky beat down the Chapman’s door. The Chapmans had the Derby and Preakness winner. The Chapmans, sensing they were in deep water, turned to their long-time friend George Isaacs, the man who broke Smarty as a yearling and two-year-old, to help broker any deals.

It might have started 30 minutes before the Derby when Clay approached Roy during the post parade. When they met that planted roots, roots that could bear fruit later.

Isaacs felt the deal was easy since they sat on the horse everybody wanted. The Chapmans wanted to keep half the horse. It was more than just money; it was about finding the right fit for their horse.

Representatives from all the major farms flew in to Philadelphia. They met at Philadelphia International Airport: all 10 of them. The Chapmans were out of their element but they had Isaacs, their ace in the hole. During the negotiations, Roy took Pat aside and told her, “Pat, it’s your horse. I’m not going to help you make your decision. You’re going to live with the decision longer than I am. I don’t have long.”

Said Isaacs: “You want to talk to as many as possible, hear what they have in mind. You will decide whether to breed three hundred mares or limit his book size.” Isaacs spoke to Clay, “Robert, you called first. Because you did I’ll allow you the courtesy of being first, middle, or last.”

“I’d like to be first out of the block,” Clay replied.

It came down to Three Chimneys, Lane’s End, and Darley. Clay knew that sending your Derby winner to a breeding farm is like sending your child to boarding school. Personal relationships matter.

Smarty was on Clay’s radar after his impressive win in the Arkansas Derby. After that race, he could tell that Smarty could be a good horse; the Kentucky Derby confirmed that. Clay liked that Smarty wasn’t too big either. He’d be a nice size to suit a lot of mares. Smarty’s pedigree was questionable but he came within a length of winning the Triple Crown. He was worth the risk.

WinStar offered $25 million, a bit low, but had a list of intangibles, Isaacs thought. They would buy a group of mares to support the horse, maybe $10 million worth of mares. Lane’s End offered close to $40 million, but they had too many stallions for the Chapmans’ liking. It was public-university-big vs. liberal-arts-college-small.

Isaacs watched as Three Chimneys and Darley dueled. Darley was looking to make inroads into North American stallions but Three Chimneys was established. They had experience with Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner. And they had relatively few stallions compared to some other operations that had several dozen. Three Chimneys went up to $39 million and the deal was done.

Smarty was sliced into 60 shares with the Chapmans retaining half. The Chapmans also wanted easy access and visitation rights. Smarty was so important to so many people, his mythology and his legend so grand, that accessibility was of paramount importance to them.

By August 5, 2004, all the shares were sold. Twenty shares went out at $650,000 a share. Three Chimneys held 10. The big shock would be his stud fee: $100,000. Isaacs knew it was a bit inflated but based on the price of his syndication, Three Chimneys needed to reflect that investment.

Smarty’s progeny needed to run; run fast and run fast often. They did the first two but failed to graduate to graded-stakes level.

When a horse commands that kind of value, the pressure is on. It used to be a horse had three years and three crops. These days, it’s far less forgiving. The fuse is lit and the dynamite had better ignite. Clay even gave Smarty a longer tenure as a top sire, hoping his crops would come around.

Japan offered to buy him but Pat wouldn’t hear of it. By now, her husband had passed, but Roy’s words stuck with her, that she would have to live with the decision forever. Pat would always keep Smarty.

Again and again, Smarty’s offspring failed to advance beyond a basic stakes level. Maybe, if he was washed up in Kentucky, he could come home to Pennsylvania. Like Odysseus’ long road back to Greece, Smarty would be back where it all began, back when he was the vision of the late Bob Camac’s eye and where the Chapmans nearly gave horse racing the pink slip.

Smarty had the will to win on the racetrack. But breeding is molecular, the fusion of X and Y chromosomes, and how they arrange those nucleotides determines if one horse has innate ability over another. Smarty’s heart was uniquely his own to keep.

Smarty Jones was beloved, such a gritty son of a gun on the track, that he was a testament to his legacy. It’s why some very smart businessmen bought into Smarty as a stallion.

When Pat saw his book size shrinking and she was losing money, she reached out to Clay and said, “I can’t afford this… and neither can Smarty.”

Clay read the writing on the wall and probably stayed in longer than he normally would have because Smarty came within eight feet of a Triple Crown.

Clay and Pat contacted Carl McEntee of Northview Stallions in Pennsylvania. McEntee knew that Kentucky bloodstock was a very here-and-now kind of business. They grant you favor until your two-year-olds hit the track and if your three-year-olds aren’t running, they’re onto the next big thing and there’s always a next big thing.

Smarty Jones came back to Philadelphia, his Odyssey complete. He became the flag bearer for the Pennsylvania breeding program, Act 71, that allowed for expanded gaming in the state which, as a result, led to higher purses and state-bred incentives on the racetrack.

McEntee said that when Smarty made his return, 3,500 people turned out to see the returning hero. The local breeder walked through the parking lot just to see the license plates. People came across five states just to get within a length of Smarty. He was humbled by the experience, realizing just how much the horse touched people.

To this day the farm receives Christmas presents, birthday cards, and emails from Smarty’s fans. McEntee reads them all; inspiring messages from people who owe their love of horse racing to the undersized horse with an oversized heart, a horse that shook the earth.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Belmont Day: Smarty Jones & Racing History, Part IV

Smarty Jones had delivered in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The Smarty Party was in full force and there was just one race to go. The weight of history and the Triple Crown lay before Smarty Jones if he could just hold on—and hold off—any late charges.

The 1 ½ miles of the Belmont Stakes was all that stood between Smarty Jones and immortality. It promised to be the toughest challenge of his career. If he could just hold onto his winning form for one more race…

For months, all the Chapmans heard was that Smarty didn’t have the pedigree, that he’d run into a wall sooner or later. Yet here they were—a win away from being the racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

Deep down, Roy thought that someday, somewhere, he’s going to get beat. He only had to wait three more weeks now to wait.

Prior to the Belmont Stakes, John Servis was at a Philadelphia Phillies game. He was asked what his concern about the race was. Was it the 1 ½ miles? “I said ‘We’re the horse with the bull’s eye on our back.’ Everybody is worried about my horse.

The way the race set up, it’s human nature to worry about these things. Everybody usually tries to find a way to win the race. In the Belmont, if there’s a Triple Crown horse in there, every horse in the race thinks, ‘How do I beat the horse, not win the race?’”

Jerry Bailey, the jockey of Eddington, to this day receives much of the blame for why Smarty Jones lost that day, Smarty’s one and only loss in the ninth and final race of his career.

Eddington didn’t win, which makes it all the more frustrating for those who still blame Bailey, who’s tired of the criticism. All these years later he still deals with it when the Belmont Stakes rolls around. No matter what he says people won’t believe him. He maintains that he didn’t ride his horse to beat Smarty Jones, only to win the race.

“It’s 10 years later and I still get so much bullshit about it,” Bailey said in a phone interview. For instance, it irritated him that ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards has never let it go. Bailey maintains he moved early down the backside because it was the only way to beat this horse, otherwise they’d never get to him. Bailey even gave Eddington a tap with the whip down the backside to ensure that Eddington kept up.

In his book, Against the Odds, Bailey wrote: "In the Belmont, some say my own assertive early handling of my horse Eddington was meant to act as a spoiler, to wear Smarty Jones down, but anyone who thinks I was intent on spoiling the Smarty Part is way off-base. I ride to win, never to beat another horse, and that is exactly what I did with Eddington.

Trainer Mark Hennig and I had worked on Eddington’s focus through the spring because the horse had continually failed to put it all together. Mark put a very sharp work into him before the Belmont because our plan was to have him on the engine right away. We wanted him to know he was in a race the minute he left the gate. We hoped and believed that would keep him from becoming distracted the way he had before.

We had told anybody who would listen that we would put him in the game from the beginning and that is exactly what we did. If the jockey was paying any attention, he knew early pressure was going to come from him. Rock Hard Ten joined the fray as well.
There are no gifts in racing. Everything must be earned, especially Triple Crowns. In the end, Edgar Prado rallied Birdstone to a one-length victory over Smarty Jones in the final leg.

[Prado] even apologized, because he genuinely felt awful about depriving the sport of a much-needed superstar. But he was only doing his job. So was I."

Bailey said Eddington had limitless potential, but the light bulb hadn’t gone on yet, which was a shame because Eddington was a huge horse; tall, well built, an Adonis.

Eddington was a non-factor in the Preakness. He was too green. He never focused down the lane. So Bailey figured that in order to give the horse a chance, he needed to put an eyeball in Smarty’s sight line. Bailey said Hennig told him to get him in the race early.

“If you can get him to eyeball Smarty, get Eddington in gear and into his rhythm. Eyeball him.” In other words, try and break him.

Smarty broke from the far outside in the nine-horse Belmont field. He shot out like a cannonball and cleared the field. Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten also had his sights on getting to the lead. Eddington did not break well; he steadied and it took him a hundred yards to get his bearings.

By the time the horses reached the clubhouse turn, Purge had the lead with Rock Hard Ten on his right hip. Smarty tracked them in third. Eddington was a length in back of Smarty before falling back another two.
Elliott didn’t like how Smarty felt. For the first time in all their previous races, something was off.

Smarty was too keyed up, and this race was a full quarter-mile longer than the Derby. There were 120,139 people whose collective energy stewed the air. Elliott needed to ration Smarty’s energy, but how? He didn’t want to discourage Smarty by holding him back? He wasn’t sure what to do at that point.

As the horses straightened out down the backstretch, Eddington quickly moved up to the outside of Smarty, as was the plan. Now Smarty had pressure from Purge and Rock Hard Ten on the left, and Eddington on the right.

Bailey rushed at him but backed off when he knew that Eddington had no chance. Yes, he got their eyeballs locked, but Eddington was the first to blink.

Some viewed this as a suicidal tactic, contrary to what Bailey said. Servis couldn’t believe what he was seeing but he could sense what was happening, he saw the writing on the wall. He got concerned when he saw
Bailey take Eddington back, then rush back at him again. Why give up ground then surge back in? “Damn, here we go,” he said.

At this juncture Elliott had a decision to make. It would be a decision he’d have to live with for the rest of his life. Tom Durkin, Belmont’s race caller, later said, “[Smarty Jones] was a victim of pilot error.”
Elliott only had a few seconds to make up his mind; nanoseconds.

Through his hands he felt Smarty’s aggressiveness, how unsettled he had become. Elliott felt the other horses gunning for him. He had ridden long enough to know by the first turn when things are good and when things are bad. This was bad.

No matter what he tried, Elliott thought that Smarty was running in a 100-yard-dash. He kept fighting him. He tried to get him to relax. Nothing worked.

In this case, it was the thousand-pound animal that won the battle of wills. Elliott lengthened the reins and Smarty tightened the slack and leaned into the bit. The crowd roared when Smarty took the lead away from Purge and Rock Hard Ten.

There was still an entire mile to run. By then Bailey hustled Eddington up into contention. He shook him vigorously and with every pump he kept Smarty keyed up. Rock Hard Ten rode up for a final push. He lasted fifty yards. He couldn’t hang with Smarty, nobody could.

As they ran around the far turn, you could see dozens of buses lining the roads beyond the track. Buses once full of people waiting for this moment, ferried from all corners of the Northeast. The United States was mired in two wars a world away.

The Red Sox hadn’t yet won the World Series. Ronald Reagan died on this day, and there ran Smarty Jones, quaking the earth. At last, Smarty Jones found himself alone on the lead.

He turned for home and over 120,000 people roared. All that lay before him was a channel of perfectly harrowed sand and loam, his hooves the first to dimple the manicured surface. The only horses ahead of him were the specters of the 11 horses that swept this series.

Smarty’s stride began to shorten, weakened by too many recent miles. Elliott peeked behind him and saw Edgar Prado, a long-time friend and colleague, aboard the equally small colt in Birdstone—moving up fast.

Servis knew that the middle half-mile of this race had taken its toll. He no longer felt confident. In fact, he couldn’t believe Smarty held on this long. “We’re life and death to hold on,” he said. He looked behind Smarty and saw Birdstone, the only colt who may have been smaller than Smarty Jones.

Tom Durkin’s voice strained with every stride.

“Birdstone is going to make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been twenty-six years! It’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on?! Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins … the Belmont Stakes.”

The place became funeral quiet. Pat Chapman couldn’t believe how eerie the quiet was. She swore she could have heard a pin drop. This is the loudest silence she could recall. All those people, 120,000 of them, stunned quiet. She’d never forget the silence.

The winning connections: Edgar Prado, trainer Nick Zito and owner Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, apologized. Winners; apologizing.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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