Breakfast With The Doc

I just returned from Saratoga and another Travers Stakes. It is this annual pilgrimage to the mecca of racing that makes me briefly forget all the problems the sport is facing and remember the way it used to be.

This year marks my (gulp!) 40th anniversary at the Spa, so what better time to go down memory lane once again and rekindle the first of many unforgettable moments that have made Saratoga such a magical place. And that includes proposing to my wife there in 1979 (or was it the other way around as she claims?) when she was working for NYRA as public relations coordinator  .

My first visit was in 1968 when I took an Adirondack Trailways bus from New York City and checked into the Victoria Hotel on Broadway, which, of course, is long gone. On its site now stands a Boston Market. Even back then the Victoria was an old hotel with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s. It was pretty modest, and in no way even remotely resembled the Adelphi, the last of the great old hotels, which in turn bore no resemblance to the massive, ostentatious Grand Union and United States Hotels that catered to the opulent and often decadent tastes of America’s tycoons, high rollers, and silver spoon-fed upper crust.

The Grand Union’s dining room seated 1,200 guests. After a night of gambling and drinking at Canfield Casino followed by a breakfast of frog legs and champagne, screens were discreetly put up for patrons who preferred being sick in private. I don’t recall seeing a dining room of any size at the Victoria and the people sitting on the porch bore little resemblance to Diamond Jim Brady or Lillian Russell or the Marquis de Lafayette, but for my simple tastes and means my little twin bed was all I needed.

Walking to the track each morning up Lincoln Ave. and past Siro’s was like strolling along the yellow brick road, waiting for that first glimpse of Emerald City. The track had recently begun serving breakfast on the apron porch, where you were greeted by a tuxedo-clad maitre d’. If you didn’t mind that the price of breakfast was outrageous and tips on the races normally were hotter than the food, it was a great experience, with the smell of bacon wafting through the crisp mountain air, the clanging of dishes and silverware, and some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country galloping and working in front of you. Once in a while you’d see a top trainer having breakfast, and you could listen in on Bill Johnson’s Saturday morning radio show at one of the tables.

After training and breakfast, it was off to the National Museum of Racing across the street to watch the crackly, black and white replays of the previous day’s races and a small feature on great stakes of the past preceding it. It was here you saw the only films available of Buckpasser winning the 1966 Travers or the great duel between Jaipur and Ridan in the 1962 running. Most of the films were narrated by the great Chris Schenkel. This was held downstairs (or was it upstairs?) in a small room with folding chairs, an old-fashioned pull-up screen, and a 16mm projector (or was it 8 mm?). Funny how you don’t remember certain little things.

A few days after arriving in Saratoga, I managed to find a shopping center that had a camera store, and bought myself one of those little Kodak Brownie Instamatic cameras, which was considered modern technology back then. I had to capture all these indelible images and the beauty of Saratoga.

My first morning at the track with my new camera, I shot just about everything I saw -- the grandstand, adorned with flowers, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his sons, my hotel, and even the McDonalds across the street, which of course is still there.

On Travers morning, I managed to get shots of trainer Eddie Neloy having breakfast and Johnson interviewing trainer Henry Forrest, who would be saddling the Travers favorite, Forward Pass.

As training hours drew to a close, the skies, which had been clear all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those wild Saratoga thunderstorms was imminent. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, I could hear a faint voice over the public address system announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.”

It was the Saturday before the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, in which the Doc would be gunning for the one-mile world record, and on this morning he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.

Just as he made his way on to the track, the skies opened up, as the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. I, however, was not going to blow an opportunity to take a picture of the mighty Dr. Fager, especially with my brand new Kodak Brownie Instamatic.

Everyone headed in one direction and I headed in the opposite direction toward the rail. I got there just as Dr. Fager was walking by accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. The exercise rider, Jose Marrero, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me, as if wondering what kind of idiot would come running out into the pouring rain to take a picture of a horse. But this was no ordinary horse.

Like some majestic shrouded figure, Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wide-eyed 21-year-old, who was floundering about trading over-the-counter stocks on Wall Street and hating it. As the Doc walked past me, oblivious to the elements, he had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red.

I managed to take one shot of him before high-tailing it back under cover. The first person I saw was the Doc’s trainer, John Nerud, who was well-prepared for the weather, decked out in a yellow rain poncho. I went over and called, “John,” and when he looked up and gave me a friendly smile, I took his picture as well.

Through the murk and rain, the good doctor breezed five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from Marrero, who had to weigh at least 150 to 160 pounds. A week later, Dr. Fager broke the world record for the mile, winning eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds in one of the most awe-inspiring performances of all time. It would become the most sought after record in racing, lasting nearly three decades.

For years, I have carried that photo of Dr. Fager in my wallet. It was not a very good photo, but in many ways it was the best I’ve ever taken, with the Doc’s rich blood-bay coat bursting with color even on such a gloomy morning. I still look at that picture and think back to when everything was new – my camera, my first trip away from home, and my newly found obsession with horse racing.

The following year, I left Wall Street and took a job as a copy boy at the old Morning Telegraph. My world and the world of Saratoga and Dr. Fager were now and forever one.

 

51 Comments

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s lee

ah, Saratoga.

My first visit was the summer of 1970.  After that wildly expensive breakfast at dawn, my father and I went up to the grandstand and sat in the best boxes - the Vanderbilts, the Wideners, the Governor of New York - the ones with the best views of the finish line.  One of the horses working that morning barreled out of the mist on the backstretch and even to my teenage eye I could tell this horse was different - this was power in a special form, this was speed in a different class, this was a racehorse!

THIS was Ta Wee.  Champion sprinter of 1969 and 1970.  And, of course, Dr. Fager's younger half-sister.

ah, Saratoga.....

25 Aug 2008 12:23 PM
The Deacon

Great story Steve. The glory days of horse racing fill my heart as well. I was 18 years old when I saw Dr. Fager win the 1968 Califorian Stakes at Hollywood Park carrying 130 pounds. I got 2-1 or 9-5 on him that day, wow, never saw those odds again. What a race horse! The Roy Hobbs of race horses.

I love the Travers Stakes, it is incredibly rich in tradition. The 1967 running in which Damascus was brilliant, and in 1973 watching Onion upset mighty Secretariat. There is no place on earth quite like Saratoga.

You write with such passion and conviction it is an honor to read your work..............

25 Aug 2008 12:58 PM
jennifer

And what an introduction you had. I've been enjoying your blog, and all your great stories.  Thanks, Steve.  

25 Aug 2008 1:17 PM
Tiznowbaby

Beautiful, Steve. Makes me wish I were you (or at least there). You're a lucky guy.

25 Aug 2008 1:19 PM
needler in Virginia

Steve..well said, and now we know one of the reasons  the Doc is your favorite....probably for all time, no?? Mine will be Fourstardave under just about the same circumstances, but after resembling an aged cart horse in the saddling area, he stepped on the track, his head came up, his nostrils flared, his tail whipped, and his ears were pricked so high, the tips almost touched. That memory goes with me everywhere, and is only one of my reasons for loving 'Toga ALMOST (but not quite) as much as you do.

Thanks for the memories and may we both have many more.

Cheers, but what about Peppers Pride????????

25 Aug 2008 1:23 PM
Bradgm

Now this is the Steve I know and love. Showed it to the wife and she thought it was a beautiful story. You just had a Karmic connection with Dr. Fager, IMHO. Nothing like that mist/fog on an early morning in Saratoga. Oh to be able to remember the way it was, but the way it is, is still a hundred times better than some of the tracks.

25 Aug 2008 1:41 PM
joe

Thanks again, Steve.  Your description of breakfast at Saratoga brought memories of my 1995 visit.  My friend's dad treated us to breakfast on a beautiful morning.  The next day-Travers Day-my friend and I managed despite the crowd to gain possession of a picnic table near the rail, and we held onto it throughout a hot, hot day-no sun screen.  But what a vantage point for my pictures of the Derby-Belmont winner, Thunder Gulch, taking his Travers win.

25 Aug 2008 1:52 PM
hasty road

Great Story.  I will never forget the Jersey Derby at Garden State, where Manny Ycaza racked up three other horses in the field at the clubhouse turn and was disqualified and placed 4th. (last) Ycaza could have taken the Doctor to the outside rail and won the race. As it was, he won the race by about 6 lengths eased all the way down the stretch.  The good Doctor was the greatest horse of all time and the one and only time I get to see him, the jockey pulls one of the biggest bone head rides of all time.      

25 Aug 2008 1:56 PM
Rggc

Steve,you write and we are there. Thank you for this and all your columns.

25 Aug 2008 2:19 PM
Doors

My first visit to Saratoga was with my grandparents, parents, and sister. It was sometime in the early 60s.  That day, Allaire Dupont was presented with a Richard Stone Reeves portrait of her horse, commemorating his being horse of the year the previous year. This was before Eclipse awards.... but the best part was the horse himself, yes Kelso, paraded in front of the grandstand, and of course received a nice round of applause. I just attended my 43rd consecutive Travers (Buckpasser's was my first)and looking forward to many more.

25 Aug 2008 2:19 PM
Cgriff

What a picture you painted, Steve!  Your pic of the good Doctor reminds me of Woody Braun's pic of Secretariat he always kept, or Nack's picture of Swaps.

Once a truly great one get's in your blood, and in your camera - you are hopelessly hooked!  I know it's the same for all of us - but none could say it as well as you!

Hope you had a great time -and had at least one night of great food and jazz at One Caroline's!

25 Aug 2008 2:34 PM
Anne

Thanks for the goosebumps.

25 Aug 2008 2:47 PM
Don

Emerald City?  Schmaltz.

When a double-cheeseburger at the New Baltimore tourist-trap-and-gas rest stop on I-87 tasted better than half the meals we experienced at Saratoga between August 16th-23rd, 2008, I can do without the boilerplte about Diamond Jim Brady.

25 Aug 2008 4:05 PM
Bill

Great story, Steve. Your passion is evident and justly so.  Dr. Fager had the kind of charisma which you don't witness very often. Think of Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente and any other brilliant athlete who inspired people just by their very presence and you get an idea of what is was like to witness one of the Doctor's performances.  One had the impression that no track record was safe when he ran. Knowing you were seeing something extraordinary captured my imagination. It's because of that horse that I became a horseplayer and lover of thoroughbred racing, just as he did for you.  I just hope there are other Dr. Fagers yet to be born to inspire future generations. Thanks for the memories.

25 Aug 2008 4:24 PM
Bob

Being born and raised in Southern California I am a Del Mar kinda guy.  Give me the beach over any place in the world.  That being said, I have spent a few days over the past few years taking in the Saratoga vibe and you brought the feel to life with this column. It was spot on. Thanks!

25 Aug 2008 5:18 PM
Johnny

Dr. Fager was the greatest dirt miler of all time, in my opinion. Who was going to beat this guy at a mile? Especially under 134 pounds. Man o'War maybe? What a race that would have been.

Steve, you know that this is the 40th anniversary since the Doc's magnificient season when he won four major championships. Are you working on a 40th anniversary article about his glorious year?

If not, why not?

25 Aug 2008 5:42 PM
Karen2

Your the greatest writer of all time. I swear it! I love the simplicity and sincerity of each and every little moment. You have the greatest job in the world and you have a tremendous gift Steve Haskin. Thanks for sharing your gift with the rest of the world. Anne: I share the goosebumps!!!!

25 Aug 2008 7:13 PM
BIGHORSEFAN

Bob, Same here but DM wasn't the same last year and all the Reggae, Rock etc concerts don't exactly make it the same atmosphere or clientele you get at Saratoga. The view and the close proximity of the beach is cool, but it's surf or bet when we see the water from DM, so would rather just go surf when that is the plan and when we go to bet, just go for that purpose. Try not to mix pleasure with pleasure.

Don, we were there earlier in the month. Almost every meal we had was great. Don't know where you ate but perhaps the waiter tampered with the food of such a pleasant, charming person as yourself.

IGNORE him STEVE we think you are awesome

25 Aug 2008 7:26 PM
Abbie Knowles

This year's Travers Stakes was the first i have ever seen and as six of my all time favourite horse's descendants were running it i was very excited about it!

Unfortunately had to put up with ATR's worst presenter who even makes John Mcrirrick look good!  I think Big Mac is able to tell Borderlescott and Dandy Man apart!!!!  Think Big Mac is trying to be less obnoxious instead of just being very trying. I have totally given up on ATR's worst!

However as so often in the past Seattle Slew, through three of his six descendants cheered me up no end.  I really wanted Mambo in Seattle to win. But do love The Colonel too and Pyro who fought his way through the pack to finish a gallant third!  Believe Mambo in Seattle will win the B C Classic.  Doubt that Curlin will seeing his owners keep saying he is not running in it because they do not like the surface.  They must do what is best for Curlin.  He deserves that! Not many horses have six descendants running in any race let alone one as important as The Travers and "Slew" did get 1st, 2nd and 3rd!

He is the ultimate racehorse and sire and his racing and stallion record bear that out.  Through his descendants, who are winning all over the place in America anyway, he will make himself very hard to forget!  

I love all horses and hate seeing them abused by greedy people who do not deserve to be any where near such noble and civilised creatures!

Thank goodness for Godolphin, Darley, Shadwell, anyone who has ever been in any way connected to  The Rulers of Dubai and the Aga Khan!!!!  They at least know how to treat horses correctly as do their many friends.

SEATTLE SLEW RULES OK!!!!!

Get very cross with those who criticise The Maktoum family in Great Britain as without them British racing would have sunk without trace!!!!   And i would long since have stopped watching it!

25 Aug 2008 7:53 PM
Alex

I've been going to Saratoga on and off for the past 32 years  and I am happy to say that I always feel the magic. Even this past Saturday where I went 0 for 12, I still feel good about the place. I can't wait to be back on Friday to close out the meet. I know that when I drive back Monday evening, I will be in a funk until the NFL starts up again.

Thanks for sharing your memories Steve. Always a treat.

25 Aug 2008 8:50 PM
Dianne

All i have to say is, i not only want to see that picture in your wallet, i want to see all the others you took, the next time i see you!  I think i deserve that! ;-)

Great stuff as always, thanks!

25 Aug 2008 8:58 PM
The Deacon

Hasty Road, you are right on the "Doc" was the greatest of all time. Up to 1 1/8 mile or even a 1 1/4 no horse could beat him. They put up to 139 pounds on his back and still couldn't get by him. What a machine. At a 1 1/2 I would take Secretariat, Kelso , or even Man O' War. Only 3 horses in history ever beat the "Doc", and in two of those races they put a rabbit (Hedevar) in there to wear him down. NUFF SAID' in my mind.

Again, great blog Steve...............  

25 Aug 2008 9:12 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks, everyone for your comments and your own memories of Saratoga. If anyone hasn't been there, it is worth the trip, at least once. It's so much more than a day or more at the races, it is a cathartic experience that will transport you back in time.

25 Aug 2008 10:21 PM
Linny

The Doc was one of the all time greats.  I never saw him but one of my "guru's" in racing was a HUGE fan of his.

Deacon, Onion didn't beat Secretariat in the Travers, it was the Whitney.  Onion was 4 in 1973.  Secretariat was "prepping" for the Travers that day and lost and was found to be ailing and never made the 1973 Travers.

25 Aug 2008 11:19 PM
The Deacon

Thanks Linny for the correction, my 58 year old memory is not what it used to be.

26 Aug 2008 12:53 AM
Whatever

You are very lucky to have had such golden opportunities. Just to see Dr. Fager in person was a golden opportunity.  You remember Dr. Fager well because his kind will never be again. You got to see one of the REAL great ones.  I like it when you talk about the true champions,  its something worth reading about.

26 Aug 2008 10:44 AM
Jim

Steve, you're a freaking museum. Can't you get on the National Register? There's another generation coming that needs you. They at least should know what a horse is.  

26 Aug 2008 11:20 AM
Bradgm

Steve, I know you said you had no plans for any additional books but the changing industry and the history needs something along the lines of this blog. Think about it, the mind (talent) is a terrible thing to waste.

26 Aug 2008 1:20 PM
txhorsefan

Steve,

Once again, an excellent blog bringing a great horse to life for me!  Sure do wish I could have been paying attention to racing back then, but was young and distracted and working hard to supress my love of horses to pursue other interests.  Now that I'm old and my kids are grown I'm allowing myself to fall in love with horses all over again and it's so great how you bring the best ones that I missed out on to life with your insightful words and the images you create with your stories.  Thank you!

26 Aug 2008 2:15 PM
buzznott

The turn off the Interstate onto Rte.9 is a turn back in time.

26 Aug 2008 2:21 PM
misting

the doctor is always the standard i use when comparing other great horses-the only one that i thought might give him a race would have been Ghostzapper-in a way, it's a shame that racing secretaries are hampered by purses that are offered by other tracks so they can't really weigh them like they should; for fear of chasing them in the arms of these tracks who are only trying to survive..I was privileged to see the good doctor in the Vosburgh carrying 139 lbs to Kissing George's 127 and both of them running as a team until they hit the stretch and the good doctor slowly drawing off and winning in hand by seven and breaking Aqu's 7f of 1:21 set by Bold Ruler down to 1:20 1/5--what a horse

26 Aug 2008 2:24 PM
Dan

Steve: on an unseasonably cool sat. morn in the early sixties, i hitchhiked from latham to saratoga by holding up a copy of the morning telegraph. i got a ride from a fellow from mass. only by promising to help him get the rest of the way without getting lost. a great first time experience !! and, by the way, i saw Kelso beat malicious and pia star in the whitney !! been going back for 45 years now. been to world series, super bowl, ky. derby, breeder's cup,etc.,etc. etc. and i'll still take a "non-stakes" thursday at 'toga over 'em all !!!

26 Aug 2008 3:51 PM
Hank

Mr Haskin, U-R-D Best. Thank you for a great article. I thought I was the only fool to carry a picture of a horse in my wallet, it was a pic of Bold Ruler I had taken win I visited Claiborne Farm while on a 3 day pass from Ft Campbell.Best looking horse I ever saw, fell in love with him, when he raced, got my heart broke by Mr Arcaro, when I met him at a golf scramble in Penn, he told me that he was not in his top 5, course Citation was his #1 Two divorces and out went all my pics

26 Aug 2008 10:19 PM
Steve Haskin

Brad, the books may not continue, but the blog will, so the mind will still be working to some extent. And I will continue to include a good deal of history from both a personal and non-personal perspective. Jim, I am hoping that new generation you speak of will appreciate the recollections of how things were and get some sense of history. It was a simpler time back then, without all the issues the sport faces now. You could appreciate the horse and the competition and not have to deal with horses retiring prematurely, because owners were true sportsmen who were not in the game for money.

Thanks again to everyone for your comments.

27 Aug 2008 2:43 AM
Gary Peacock

Very nice article, Steve. And Karen2 is the greatest for recognizing the same in you, sir. Would love to goose sharebumps with Anne, her , and you. Oh,  the Spa.......

27 Aug 2008 3:05 AM
The Deacon

Steve, an idea for a new blog, how about the best white, gray (grey), or roan horse you ever saw run.

I just love your writing, puts a lump in my throat. Nothing like yesteryear..............

27 Aug 2008 3:08 AM
Bradgm

Hey Steve, how about a compilation of your blogs, sort of a collection of memories and short stories, sort of like Tales From the TC but broader scope. Work for you but that would keep me from having to save them to a file and print them up and I bet you could sell a ton of them.

Deacon, Great idea, love the gray's. Cool race on Halloween at the Meadowlands The Gray Ghost.

Sad to think the Spa and DM both wrapping up, can barely believe Summer is gone. Going to the All American Futurity in Ruidoso, a tradition for years, since I was a

kid the definite end of Summer racing.

27 Aug 2008 11:50 AM
Wanda

Bradgm: If you see any Alberta based QH at Ruidoso cheer em on for me.

27 Aug 2008 3:11 PM
Steve Haskin

Brad, an interesting idea, but I've hardly written enough blogs to make a compilation of them. Maybe one day. I'll certainly consider the grays. You do know that there already is a race for grays only.

27 Aug 2008 5:23 PM
Bradgm

The Gray Ghost on Halloween at the Meadowlands a Starter allowance I believe. Also a pacing race in Australia I think.

You have a nice start on the blog thing, the variety of subjects is what makes it interesting. Something for everyone from the benign and nostalgic to the controversial(unplanned probably) and thought provoking.

Sat in on the chat on Talkin Horses, almost forgot.

World renown, Glasgow, Prague etc and the soldier from Iraq, awesome.

Loved the answer on the BC F/M, echoed a lot of the thoughts on the blog comments. Keep up the awesome job.

27 Aug 2008 6:28 PM
The Deacon

Here are a few great grays from yesteryear. Spectacular Bid, Native Dancer, Vigors, Foggy Note, and Lady's Secret.............

28 Aug 2008 2:16 AM
Bradgm

Wanda, will keep an eye out for any. Will be watching Heartswideopen go for the all time QH winnings record in the AA Derby.

Deacon,

Winning Colors, Holy Bull, Skip Away etc.

28 Aug 2008 9:40 PM
Racefan66

Thanks for another wonderful story, I really do feel as if I'm right there with you when I read them.  You have a special gift, thanks for sharing it!

29 Aug 2008 12:13 AM
d3hoss

Wonderful, just wonderful.

29 Aug 2008 2:34 PM
Matthew W

Steve, write a book! I mean PLEASE--write a book! What you have to say is meaningful....

31 Aug 2008 3:51 AM
Matthew W

Grays I've seen in person: The Steel Gray Spectacular Bid....The near white Vigors (one of the most beautiful closers in history) Grey Papa, the Longacres Flash running a close third in The Palos Vardes on opening day at Santa Anita....Polynesian Flyer winning The Portland Meadows Mile from the far outside, he was such an awesome looking horse....Normandy Grey, 1/2 bro to Vigors, winning for me, early seventies, from last...in the last race....paid 30-1.....and I got him again at that price, "COME-ON, NORMANDY GREY!!!"

31 Aug 2008 4:00 AM
Kate

I truly enjoy these "tours" from your memory bank.

Wonderful writing...made me think of my first misty morning in Saratoga...and why this sport has its unique appeal.

31 Aug 2008 10:00 AM
The Deacon

A few more grays, Silver Charm, Free House, and Decidedly along with the great Determine.

31 Aug 2008 4:09 PM
Steve Haskin

Matt, I've written six books, but if you're referring to "tours" from my memory bank, as Kate put it, maybe one day I can do a compilation of the "look-back" blogs. But I've got a long way to go. I will continue to combine both those kind and the topical subjects.

02 Sep 2008 12:06 AM
Matthew W

sleeper great grey: La Zanzara, back-to-back winner of San Juan Capistrano when it mattered....

02 Sep 2008 11:08 PM
Steve Haskin

Papillon, where in the story do I compare the talent of the three horses? You read into it what you want to. My only link to the three horses is the toughness and durability they have displayed all year. Whether you are aware of it or not, that is the premise of the column -- not comparing their talent or accomplishments. It is futile to keep addressing comments based on a misguided comprehension of the story.

I actually ranked Orb as the top 3-year-old in the country on the NTRA poll based on his accomplishments all year. Please read the stories more carefully next time before posting.

24 Jun 2013 12:49 PM

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