Saratoga Snapshots; 48 Years of Memories

Snapshots of Saratoga by Steve Haskin

For me, memories of Saratoga transcend Thoroughbred racing and reach deep into the very fabric of my being. They go far beyond the great races and champion horses witnessed there. The magic of Saratoga has touched me mainly through special moments shared by family, providing milestones not only in my own life, but my wife’s and daughter’s.

Of course, over a period of 48 years there have been numerous horses, races, and events at the Spa that have left an indelible impression. My first trip there in 1968 provided the foundation for a lifetime of memories. I believe, unlike many of those who have traveled there during the past century and a half, it is not the water that has been the alluring elixir, but Saratoga itself, with its charm, grace, and history…and the nation’s finest Thoroughbreds.

Below are some of the moments that have left the deepest impact.

Arts and Letters became a media star by the Saratoga meet. Here, the crowds gather as he walks around his saddling tree prior to the Jim Dandy Stakes

Breakfast with the Doc

It was Travers morning, 1968. A blanket of humidity hung over Saratoga and a thunderstorm was imminent. On the track, horses were winding down their morning’s activities, while the patrons in the clubhouse apron dining area were finishing breakfast.

This was my first visit to Saratoga, having taken the Adirondack Trailways bus up from New York City, and I was already captivated by the track, the town, and the atmosphere. So much so, that I had stopped in a shopping center the day after arriving and bought a Kodak Brownie Instamatic camera. I had to capture all these images for posterity, right down to the Victoria Hotel where I was staying. The Victoria was an old, nondescript hotel on Broadway with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s. Although aged, it no way even remotely resembled the Adelphi, the last of the grand 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.

With the Travers Stakes to be run that afternoon, a larger crowd than usual showed up to partake in this daily Saratoga ritual, where fans and horsemen mingled over breakfast, and where the tips usually were hotter than the eggs. There was nothing like it—the sound of horses’ hooves drowned by the clanging of dishes and silverware, with the smell of bacon wafting through the crisp mountain air.

I had been using my new camera to shoot most everything I saw—the flower-adorned grandstand, random horses, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his  sons, the Phipps family trainer Eddie Neloy having breakfast, and Calumet trainer Henry Forrest, who had the favorite, Forward Pass, going in the Travers, being interviewed at one of the tables.

As training drew to a close, the skies, which had been clear all morning, became dark and foreboding. 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.”

My first and only photo of the great Dr. Fager with my newly purchased Kodak Instamatic.

There he was, like a heavyweight prizefighter stepping into the ring. He looked like no other horse, seemingly taller than his 16.1 hands with a wild, untamed demeanor about him. In action he ran with a reckless abandon, resembling a mustang running across the Great Plains. The Doc was coming off a stroll in the park romp in the Whitney following a pair of epic battles with his arch rival Damascus at Aqueduct.

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, a clap of thunder rocked Saratoga, and the skies opened up, sending railbirds scurrying 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 else headed in one direction, and I headed in the opposite, toward the rail. I got there just as Dr. Fager walked by, accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. His exercise rider, Jose Marrero, clad in a red pullover shirt to enhance the Tartan Stable image, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me as if wondering what kind of fool would come running out into the pouring rain to take a picture of a horse. But they should have known better. This was no ordinary horse.

Although shrouded by the murk and rain, the majestic 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, sporting his figure-8 bridle, 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. The Doc was in a zone.

I managed to take one shot of him before retreating hastily 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.

Dr. Fager breezed five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from the 160-pound Marrero. A week later the Doc 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. It still has not been broken on the dirt after 48 years.

For years I carried that photo of Dr. Fager in my wallet. It was not a very good photo as photos go, 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 to Saratoga, 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.

Who the heck is that?

In early August 1972, Meadow Stable was commanding the headlines with its Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge, whose owner Penny Tweedy had announced that the colt was “gotten to” in the recent Monmouth Invitational Handicap following the result of blood tests performed after his inexplicable fourth-place finish.

I was on the Saratoga apron one morning leading up to the Alabama Stakes, this time partaking in breakfast with a friend and colleague from the Daily Racing Form. I was sitting with my back to the eighth pole when I heard a machine-like noise behind me that grew louder as it got closer. I knew, of course, it was the sound of a horse’s hooves pounding the sandy loam. It was obvious that the horse was working, and at a good clip. I just had never heard that sound so loud before, complete with the steam engine sound of snorting nostrils.

I naturally turned to my left to see this horse, and there, flying by me, fully stretched and gobbling up ground with humongous strides, was a big, powerful chestnut. I was about to ask to no one in particular, “Who the heck is that?” But from the colt’s blue and white checked blinkers and blue reins, I quickly deduced it had to be Meadow Stable’s highly touted 2-year-old Secretariat, who was already creating a buzz despite having won only a first-level allowance race on opening day and a maiden race at Aqueduct, in addition to a troubled fourth-place finish in his career debut. But the word had been out on the colt before he ever ran.

All I knew was that I had never seen a horse quite like this, with that rich golden chestnut color and magnificent stride, and certainly had never heard a horse like this. The following year I couldn’t help but think back to this morning after hearing jockey George Cusimano say after the Preakness Stakes, in which he rode the speedy Ecole Etage, that his horse was going along easily when he heard this noise coming up on his outside that sounded like a locomotive. He said Secretariat went by him so fast and with such power he blew the number right off his sleeve. That workout was my first look at the great Secretariat. Many more would follow.

The Baby, the Lady, and the Mom

At Saratoga in 1979, I proposed to my wife, or was it the other way around? Joan had been recently hired as public relations coordinator for the New York Racing Association. The night of our engagement we bought a split of Champagne at the Saratoga yearling sale and toasted the occasion off by ourselves in a corner of the barn area, and then broke the news to Joan’s family later at the Wishing Well restaurant.

The three years Joan worked at Saratoga were unforgettable, especially the third year when she rented a beautifully decorated apartment over a garage, complete with in-ground swimming pool in the backyard. What a life going for a swim in the morning, then walking the few blocks to the track to catch a 2-year-old maiden race before heading home and jumping back in the pool. There was the one morning when Joan and I got up before dawn and just laid in bed watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana.

In 1985 we were back at Saratoga with our daughter Mandy, who was celebrating her first birthday. Joan, who no longer was working, had written the first story on a young red-hot apprentice rider named Richard Migliore for the NYRA newsletter and had become friends with Richie’s mother, Jean. We all became good friends, and in 1985 we stayed with the Migliores, who threw Mandy a special birthday dinner in a private room at the Wishing Well.

Carmela Migliore puts Mandy up on her first horse. A great first brithday present.

The following morning Richie’s fiance, Carmela (now his wife and mother of four), who was assistant to trainer Steve DiMauro, put Mandy up on her first horse.

Later that morning we took Mandy to see the brilliant 3-year-old filly Mom’s Command, who was stabled in a barn across the street from the Nelson Avenue stable gate entrance. This rags-to-riches filly, who had broken her maiden in a restricted stakes at Rockingham Park, rose to stardom by winning seven stakes before sweeping the NYRA Filly Triple Crown (grade I Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks) while ridden by Abigail Fuller, daughter of the filly’s owner and breeder Peter Fuller.

Mandy and Joan with Mom's Command walking on the ring.

Mom’s Command would go right to the front, regardless of the distance, and just run her opponents off their feet. You rarely see horses, especially fillies, carry that kind of sprinter’s speed such long distances, but Mom’s Command was unique.

She just happened to be walking around the ring outside her barn when we arrived, and I was able to get several photos, including a few with Mandy and Joan. It was a wonderful addition to my photo collection.

Following the CCA Oaks, run at 1 1⁄2 miles, Mom’s Command’s trainer Ned Allard dropped her back to seven furlongs in the Test Stakes. Despite having to go back into a sprint, she was sent off as the 1-2 favorite. This time, however, she couldn’t shake free and had to go head and head through fractions of :22 1⁄5 and :44 4⁄5. At the quarter pole, an ominous gray presence came charging up to her. Although 10-1, she ran right by Mom’s Command and drew off to a two-length victory in 1:21 3⁄5, just a fifth off the stakes record.

That filly, Lady’s Secret, would go on to become one of the great fillies of all time, setting the earnings mark for a female and being named Horse of the Year in 1986. She also would become one of Mandy’s favorite horses after several special visits with her as a broodmare.

That Test Stakes, which most people have either forgotten or know little about, not only pitted two brilliant champions against each other, it continues to evoke memories of a very special time for our family.

I could chronicle Mandy's life just from the photos of her at Saratoga, from a one-year-old right up to the present. This year, when Mandy and Joan and the rest of our family attend a luncheon given by the National Museum of Racing to celebrate my election into the Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor, it will culminate a lifetime of precious Saratoga memories.

One of those memories came in 1969, less than two months before I was hired as a copy boy at the The Morning Telegraph. Not far from Saratoga that weekend, on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm, there was a little four-day party going on that was known simply as Woodstock. The country and its culture was about to change forever. But my mind was on the Travers and Arts and Letters, and the  magical town under the elms. The closest I got to Woodstock was seeing the exit sign from the Trailways bus on the New York Thruway heading to and from Saratoga. Two totally different events; two totally different worlds. Little could I have known that those two worlds would one day be linked and that the wheels soon would be in motion, guiding me to a future I could never have envisioned, even in my wildest dreams.

While Arts and Letters was romping in the Travers, at Woodstock that weekend was a beautiful 21-year-old long-haired blonde from New London, Conn. who fit right in with the flower children that took over Yasgur’s farm in droves; the type of girl who was well beyond my scope and would make me tongue-tied just being in her presence. But somehow, as if guided by providence, that beautiful creature and I would marry 11 years later.

Saratoga over the years

It’s been 31 years since Mandy’s first Saratoga and the memories are too numerous to mention, as are the list of champions and major stakes winners with whom she has had her picture taken. From Mom’s Command in 1985, Silverbulletday in 1999, Azeri in 2004, Rags to Riches in 2007 and most recently Wise Dan to feeding mints to Rachel Alexandra in 2010, just to name a few, they have all been special.

And I’ll never forget the first equine celebrity, the aforementioned Arts and Letters, who had people lined up 10 deep around his saddling tree back when there was no paddock and the public had access to all the horses as they were being saddled.

There have been the yearling sales, the visits to Yaddo, staying at the Adelphi Hotel for a feature story, those early days at the National Museum of Racing watching the previous day’s races (black and white and no call) on a roll-up screen, the walks up Lincoln Avenue from the Victoria Hotel to the track every morning, buying the Pink Sheets from the kid standing on the corner outside the Reading Room, Chicken Sadie, hanging out at Bobby Frankel’s barn, watching Affirmed gallop on the Oklahoma training track, breakfasts at Beverly's, and walks through Congress Park, where we now watch Mandy's husband Wes performing with Saratoga Shakespeare and playing the coveted role of "Cyrano."

Finally, there was my presentation and induction into the National Museim of Racing Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor, joining only 15 other writers, including greats like Red Smith, Jim Murray, Charles Hatton, Joe Palmer, and Bill Nack, and having my family and close friends there. And the emotional speech given by my friend and longtime Saratogian writer Mike Veitch. But to have Joan, Mandy, Wes, my in-laws Cal, Ron, and Toni Lee, and our dear friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg there added to the experience, as well as Michael Blowen from Old Friends joining us for a luncheon provided by the museum. It was surreal to think of where I came from and where I was at that moment, especially seeing Mandy, now 32, and remembering her first birthday party, and thinking back to the days when Joan worked there the entire meet as public relations coordinator for NYRA and me proposing to her and celebrating our engagement with a bottle of champagne at the Saraoga Sales pavilion. What a kaleidoscope of memories and emotions. This was Saratoga.  

Affirmed gallloping on the Oklahoma training track during his Horse of the Year season at 4.

In paraphrasing a quote on how to get to Saratoga: “Take the Northway from Albany, go about 20 miles, get off at Exit 14 and go back a hundred years.”

As much as Saratoga has changed, it has changed very little. It remains a state of feeling; a journey into the past, both of the mind and the spirit.

Mandy feeding mints to Rachel Alexandra.

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