Looking down at the racetrack well before Tom Durkin was to announce the changes, five people strode onto the racetrack, two of them dressed in black. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the family of an old friend.
The thought that leapt to mind was that someone is about to have his ashes sprinkled here forever. That notion was correct; out of Ziploc bags came the remains, which were sprinkled across the finish line.
Said my friend Ed Fountaine of the New York Post: “They’ll have to spread my ashes at the eighth pole, that’s the last time you’ll find my horses on the lead.”
Saratoga must be the spiritual home to hundreds of horseplayers and racetrackers. The remains of a beloved racetracker and another friend, Jack Kelly, will be memorialized prior to first post on Alabama Saturday.
Saratoga is special to the people who love this game and not just those who bet on the races here.
And so a champion’s head, heart and hooves are buried at the base of the flag pole in the infield, a sixteenth of a mile up the track past the finish line.
Saturday’s first race was dedicated to the memory of prominent horse owner Carl Lizza, who died July 8. When he died he was New York’s leading owner at the Belmont spring summer meet.
That wasn’t a sometime thing for Lizza, who also was New York’s leading in 2004 and 2005. His best horses were Noble Nashua, a five-time stakes winner in 1981, including the storied Marlboro Cup Handicap, and Wayward Lass, his 3-year-old filly champion.
The opener, the Carl Lizza Memorial, was won by Liberty Cap, the trophy presented to winning owner Namnook Stable by the late Lizza’s wife, Viane.
Lizza’s Flying Zee colors were represented in the second race, the Steve Schwartz Memorial. Lizza’s colt, The Prize Fighter, was the favorite, but the debuting Jaw Crusher was the hot horse.
The two vied for favoritism throughout the betting until the final minutes when the crowd settled on The Prize Fighter. From the start The Prize Fighter dueled with Think I’m Hooked.
At the quarter pole, the favorite pulled away when suddenly the good thing rushed up on the outside and took a narrow lead approaching the eighth pole.
But the challenge emboldened The Prize Fighter. He re-surged to take a short lead, holding his slim lead safely to the finish. It was as if the spirit of Carl Lizza willed the New York-bred juvenile home.
“[This win] is a great tribute to Mr. Lizza,” said winning trainer Phil Serpe. “If you asked a thousand people to testify, they’d tell you they were never at the racetrack when a Flying Zee horse wasn’t running.
“He had 300 horses but he really loved this game, not only his own horses. If you came to the races with him, it was a long day. You’d be sitting in the box with him from the first race to the last.”
The second race exacta was The Prize Fighter and Jaw Crusher finishing 1-2 It was a result Steve Schwartz would have loved; two short-priced favorites running 1-2.
It wasn’t so much that Schwartz never met a favorite he didn’t like, but the shorter the price, the better. Rich Eng of the Las Vegas Review Journal flew in for the memorial. But he began his career as a member of the NYRA press staff when Schwartz was the Media Director.
“The winner paid $4.80,” Eng said. “That would have been a signer for Schwartz,” whose family sprinkled his ashes at the finish line two hours earlier.
There was a third memorial race for people tethered to the game; Joe Lynch, a member of the State Racing and Wagering Board back in the day, beloved by many people in the Capital District.
Theresmyeverything, with leading rider Johnny Velazquez, won the Lynch Memorial and John Sabini, the current Chairman of the SRWB, presented the trophy to winning owner Mark Dedomenico.
But the day’s karma might only have just begun. In the final race of the day, as the field of maiden claiming state-breds struggled mightily to the wire, Durkin called, “that’s Ess Shape (Ess Shape?) taking the lead and he’s sixty-six to one!”
The victory by Ess Shape resulted in a Sunday carryover of $76,000 but it also got 85-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Frank Martin off a 0-for-57 schneid.
The last winner saddled by Martin in Saratoga was on August 25, 2005, a maiden named Contender’s Emotion, the 5-2 favorite. The colt was bred in New York by Flying Zee Stable. It’s just the kind of karma you can’t make up.