I have decided to go with my Top 10 Spa 150 Moments instead. (And if you’re thinking the headline refers to the double dead heat on closing day, think again. Although very rare, there were several of far greater import).
#10: THE PRINCESS OF ALABAMA: She was so dominant in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but then to come back and underscore that victory with her second Grade 1 of the meet to secure an Eclipse championship with another high energy tour de force performance was a sight to behold. “Maybe Todd should have run her next week,” I uttered to former Newsday colleague Paul Moran as Princess Of Sylmar cantered across the finish line. At the time, I didn’t know I’d be so Travers prescient.
#9: THE KINGS OF SARATOGA: You know you’re getting old when the sight of Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey and Johnny Velazquez at a podium to accept a plaque representing their domination of Saratoga racing, era after era after era, requires wiping a tear from you eye. But considering their legendary achievements in a place where legends are commonplace was a true Saratoga moment. As you looked up at the men on a makeshift stage, you realized it was the best three decades that a racing life could have.
#8: TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER: One of the first things I learned in Section 3P at Aqueduct in the 70s was that dead-heat winners never repeated. Over the years, I realized that sometimes nonsense can provide elements of truth. And it sure looked that way for Alpha who had been having a terrible 4-year-old year, until Labor Day weekend, that is. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin pushed two buttons (third time off the layup; blinkers on) and voila! Alpha leads the Woodward field on a merry chase. A job very well done by a nice horse and a very good team.
#7: JONATHAN SHEPPARD or TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER, PART II: What did it matter that Sheppard already is enshrined in the pantheon across Union Avenue and long since had won a race at Saratoga for the 45th consecutive season. But when he won the New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap for a record 14th time, it earned him another distinction befitting his Hall of Fame status. Fourteen is exactly the same number of victories posted by the late Charlie Whittingham in Santa Anita’s San Juan Capistrano turf marathon. It’s the Turf Writers without fences. This Charlie guy must have been pretty, pretty good.
#6: TWO TRAINERS MAKE THE GRADE: In what easily was a career meeting for both, George Weaver and Leah Gyarmati each got their first Grade 1 victories with Lighthouse Bay and Sweet Reason in the Prioress and Spinaway, respectively. Weaver had been flying under the radar, doing excellent work since 2012, and Gyarmati had been all but invisible. Not anymore. In all likelihood, it will be difficult for Weaver’s filly to duplicate her Grade 1 effort in the Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint November 2. But if Sweet Reason takes to a dry track the way she handles slop, there’s no telling how good she might be. Juvenile Fillies here we come.
#5: JOHNNY ALL-NOTE: Like his famous agent, and like the man he dethroned as the leading rider in Saratoga history, Johnny Velazquez finds the sweet spot in almost every race he rides. With a stalker, he’s close, but not too close and hardly ever at a loss of serious ground. When riding the rails, he always seems to find a way to extricate himself before steadying and checking become mandatory. The greatest of riders are often passengers aboard the “best horse.” But aside from his ability to leave the gate quickly and cleanly, to rate speed horses without discouraging them, and to finish up with strength and style, it’s JR’s ability to get out of the way on the best horse is his greatest strength.
#4: SARATOGA TWO DEW: I’m wondering this: When The Chief, a.k.a. H. Allen Jerkens, got Go Unbridled to duplicate last year’s winning performance in the 2013 renewal of the Saratoga Dew, was it more emotional than seeing his former assistant, Gyarmati, win the biggest race of her career? The best thing about getting his mare ready to repeat were those old school signature works of his—the long, slow, tightly spaced breezes—that he employed with Beau Purple, Prove Out, Onion and all the rest to get a job done. Suddenly, you’re back in college cutting afternoon classes to get out to the Big A just in time for the feature, always the seventh on a nine race card.
#3: YEAH YOU’RE MY, ME OH MY, DELTA LADY: Saratoga sure loves its fillies. It wasn’t quite Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward because it was more a romp than a race, but to hear applause as Mike Smith geared down Royal Delta in the final strides of the Personal Ensign, followed by hoots and hollers as she was being led into the winners’ circle was a moment that racing fans reserve only for the great ones. And to think she might return as a 6-year-old to defend this title, and possibly run in this year’s Classic? Priceless.
#2: BE MY LOVIN’ BABY: Three juveniles to follow this fall and beyond are, alphabetically: Havana, Honor Code and Strong Mandate. HAVANA won his 5 ½-furlong debut in 1:02.64, missing the track record by 13/100s; comes from the same nursery as I’ll Have Another. HONOR CODE came from as far back as any 2-year-old I’ve ever seen, ever, winning a 7-furlong debut. His blend of talent and professionalism was scary. Once again, Johnny will have to choose between Todd and Shug. STRONG MANDATE beat a strong field in the 7-furlong Grade 1 Hopeful, and he beat them mercilessly. Already proven on wet and dry surfaces; he’s 2-for-2 since blinkers.
#1: MOMENT OF THE MEET A DEAD HEAT: It’s not like it was our first Wayne Lukas winners’ circle scenario, but never on his 78th birthday and in such a big spot. In the final three weeks of the meet, to go from a duck, to the centerpiece Travers, to the final Grade 1 of the meet? This is a guy who everyone had buried, the Hall of Fame guy who revolutionized his game… And, in yet another winners’ circle ceremony, to see Ramon Dominguez, flanked by his former peers and the family of Mike Venezia, receiving an award for good citizenship and his Eclipse as the leading rider of 2012, was as warm and as filled with pathos as any moment ever witnessed here in 150 years.