Saratoga Snapshots; 45 Years of Memories

Snapshots of Saratoga by Steve Haskin

Memories of great horses and family moments. This column appeared in the July 27, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse .

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 45 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 noway 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.

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 had 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.

Shrouded in rain, the majestic Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wideeyed 21-year-old, who was f loundering 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.

Through the murk and rain, the good doctor breezed five furlongs in :59 f lat under no pressure whatsoever from the 160-pound Marrero. 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 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 bloodbay 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 machinelike 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.

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 (gr. I), 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.

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 NY RA 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 NY RA 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 11⁄2 miles, Mom’s Command’s trainer Ned Allard dropped her back to seven furlongs in the Test Stakes (gr. II). 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 :221⁄5 and :444⁄5. 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 1:213⁄5, 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.


Saratoga over the years

It’s been 28 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, to feeding mints to Rachel Alexandra in 2010, they have all been special. And I’ll never forget the first equine celebrity, 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, getting the Pink Sheets every morning, hanging out at Bobby Frankel’s barn, watching Affirmed gallop on the Oklahoma training track, and walks through Congress Park.


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 is more a state of feeling; a journey into the past, both of the mind and the spirit.


Mandy feeding mints to Rachel Alexandra.

37 Comments

Leave a Comment:

robinm

Simply awesome, and how I envy you, Steve.  To have seen so many fabulous horses "up front and personal" must make your work seem a pleasure.

Your Kodak Brownie picture of Dr. Fager shows him to be one of the most handsome horses I've ever seen and I love your description of the locomotive that was the great Secretariat.

My personal favorite photo posted with this piece is of the incredible Rachel Alexandra.  I fully intend to get to Kentucky one day in hopes of seeing her in person.

05 Aug 2013 9:16 PM
Paula Higgins

Steve, this was just wonderful. Loved the pictures of Joan and Mandy! The Dr. was magnificent. He was unique in every respect. But the picture of Mandy giving Rachel mints gladdened my heart. After her very serious illness, she has a special spot in my heart. You have given your family memories of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing thm with us.

05 Aug 2013 10:10 PM
Equine Tested

Wow - Affirmed looks absolutely amazing in that picture.

06 Aug 2013 12:54 AM
Bethany Loftis

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your memories with us! Reading about your memories of the Spa and looking at your photos was the perfect ending to a stressful day. Thanks again for sharing and of course, for everything you do.

06 Aug 2013 1:49 AM
The Deacon

Seeing that picture of the legendary Dr. Fager sent chills up my spine, first time I have ever seen this picture. I wish I hadn't forgotten my camera in 1968 when the Doc won the Californian at Hollywood Park. I got to see him up close and personal. Lasting memories of that.

This sport and these horses are more then hypnotic, they get inside you and become a part of who we are.

I can't say the words or write as eloquently as Steve but I certainly feel his words.

Thanks for sharing Steve. I have never been to Saratoga but it's on my bucket list.

Excellent photo of Mom's Command as well, a very under rated filly...

Affirmed is so muscular and majestic looking, saw him run a few times. Another special horse...

06 Aug 2013 4:53 AM
Zen4Zen

Wonderful photos and reminiscences!

06 Aug 2013 5:23 AM
steve from st louis

I can't even imagine how excited you must have been waiting to get those Brownie shots developed, then to see how great those photos came out. The photo of Affirmed seems a moving picture, his muscles bursting through his copper coat. Thanks for sharing your family and life's work with us.

06 Aug 2013 7:03 AM
derbylin

As always, this article is another winner, Steve.  Great pictures.  The Doc is an all time favorite of mine.  Like others on here I hope to visit Saratoga someday.  That has always been a dream.

06 Aug 2013 9:52 AM
Jackie WV

Steve,

Thanks so much for sharing such beautiful memories and photos!!  I'm thrilled to say I just returned from my first visit to Saratoga and it was more than I ever imagined. I've been a racing fan for several years and finally made up my mind this year to drop everything and go to this special place.  I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that I did.  It was the experience of a lifetime!!  

A big thank you to my sister Lori for introducing me to my new friend Kenny McPeek. Kenny was kind enough to take 3 "horse crazy" women to the Oklahoma Training track 2 mornings in a row. We got to see Oxbow and Will Take Charge (along with many others)training up close and personal. And I have to say, it was a thrill to meet Mr. D. Wayne Lukas!! He will always be my favorite cowboy. I was able to visit with Will Take Charge in his stall on the morning of the Jim Dandy.  He gave me several kisses on the lips and I will always swear that's why he ran so well that day...LOL  At least that's my story.  

Kenny was so gracious by allowing us to spend time at his stables and really showing us the "ins" and "outs" of the backside.  He even took us to the starting gate to watch his 2014 Derby hopeful "CJ's Awesome" schooling in the gate.  I'm still floating on cloud 9 after such an amazing weekend!! It was an opportunity that would've never happened for me and my friends without Kenny. His kindness and openness to allow us into his world for a couple days can never be repaid. Thank You Kenny!!!

Steve, I hope this was the beginning of many more trips to Saratoga, and I hope to maybe run into you there someday. I admire you and the way your writing always touches me so much!!  

Thanks again,

Jackie in WV

06 Aug 2013 10:05 AM
txhorsefan

The Deacon said it so well, " I can't say the words or write as eloquently as Steve but I certainly feel his words."  Absolutely.  I can feel the words too as I sit here with misty eyes from reading this blog and savoring the photos you have shared. I feel like one of the things that makes you so amazing as a writer and why we so love what you write is that you still are genuinely connected to these horses we love and admire from afar and you share the emotions with us.  I'm so glad you got your Brownie camera and left Wall Street.  Thank you again for sharing not only your memories and your photos, but your heart.

06 Aug 2013 10:24 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

You are the best!

06 Aug 2013 11:00 AM
deb

love the photos and memories...I wish you would do a book like this so we can return with you to these times wherever we want. Such grand horses....

06 Aug 2013 12:51 PM
Bethany Loftis

Jackie- what an awesome treat?! Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip as well! Sounds like Kenny was a gracious host to you and your friends. Here's to hoping you get to make many more trips!

Dr. D, Ted from LA- how are you doing?

06 Aug 2013 3:01 PM
The Doctor

Well Steve you did it again! Richard Stone Reeves couldn't have painted a better picture of The Spa if he had a thousand photos from your instamatic to work with !! I do subscribe to The Bloodhorse so I read your article earlier last week. Great call to share with all your fans on the Blood Horse site....

The Deacon - this is the picture of "THE DOC" I was teasing you with in an earlier blog when you forgot to mention him with the immortals as you earlier declared that he was your all time favorite. Steve I was there for the 1968 Whitney which "The Doc" won in virtual walkover! And if I would have been there two weeks later having breakfast at the workouts you would have had another 21 year old keeping you company in that rainstorm on the rail to see in my humble opinion the best of all time!! Hope to see you Alabama or Labor Day weekends at The Spa!! Keep up the great work.

06 Aug 2013 5:55 PM
Racingfan

Thank you Steve for another amazing article and for the beautiful pictures.  You and your family are very fortunate to have spent so much time in the presence of these incredible animals as I'm sure you know.  I have never been to Saratoga but really hope to go someday.  But, if I never get the chance, at least I have gotten to "feel" like I've been there thanks to your wonderful writing.  Please keep the articles coming - they can sure brighten the day!

06 Aug 2013 6:10 PM
Ted from LA

Bethany Loftis, If I were any better there would be two of me.

06 Aug 2013 7:56 PM
Bob from Boston

Bethany, Do you come here often?  Dr. D is at Dollywood this week, but he'll be back soon.

06 Aug 2013 7:59 PM
Ta Wee

I've often wondered what kind of incredible season Dr. Fager could've had as a 5yo had he not been retired.  With maybe a 7 furlong prep once again in the Roseben, he would've gone right into the Cater and Met Mile where I seriuosly doubt he could be beaten by any horse in history at these distances.  He would probably be carrying 140 or more for the Met. From there on to the Suburban , Brooklyn, and Whitney where lord knows how much Wt. he would be assigned-surely more than anyone in the storied history of these events. After sweeping these events with no Damascus and Hedevar to challenge him, on to the Woodward where possibly champion 3yo Arts And Letters would take a shot at him. Then retire him and leave no doubt as to the fastest, greatest, and most dominating horse of all-time.

06 Aug 2013 11:01 PM
The Deacon

The Doctor:  The question was too easy. No horse has held my heart tighter but we all have our favorites. My dad's love was Swaps.

I am sure you and so many of these bloggers have their favorites as well. It's just that certain horses touch us in a certain way.

No explanation, it just is.....

07 Aug 2013 2:19 AM
Davids

Steve, your photos appear as though they are from another world, and they are. I never quite understand what happened to racing from when I was an infant, the immortal Dr. Fager's era,  to now.

07 Aug 2013 3:13 AM
Deltalady

Thank you, Steve for a beautiful retrospective.  As I read your recollection of your first photo taken with your new Instamatic, I decided to see if I could find a video replay of the 1968 Washington Park Handicap and the Doctor's NWR. It's grainy, but it captures a moment in time: http://youtu.be/6wVBNbmcaAE

(Interesting side note:  in the race call, there's mention of Hedevar, famous rabbit stablemate of Damascus.) Your columns always inspire and cause me to want to know more and grow my knowledge about the sport and its great human and equine stars. Your past columns are a veritable gold mine of information and heartwarming reminiscences. Just wish the archive went back farther than 2008!  

07 Aug 2013 10:22 AM
lunar spook

Great pic of affirmed , what a lean machine he was , for my money one of the three or four best horses I ever saw run !

07 Aug 2013 11:45 AM
prudofrompuertorico

Just one thing comes to my mind, the great chinese philosopher. "DO SOMETHING THAT YOU ENJOY AND YOU WILL NEVER WORK" YOU HAVE BEEN BLESSED.

07 Aug 2013 12:04 PM
The Doctor

Deltalady - Hedevar ran up the track that day 8th to be precise, what a joke to even entertain the idea that he could evenly compete with "The Doc"!! Whitely was probably hoping to just hit the board. Not to be!!

07 Aug 2013 2:19 PM
Bethany Loftis

Ted from LA- and yet it seems there are!

Bob from Boston- yes I do, but I am ashamed to admit I don't post nearly as often as I should. Dr. D sure needs to hurry up and get back! Half the party is missing...

07 Aug 2013 2:43 PM
Paseana

Just a terrific piece, Steve, as usual.  I too love the pic of Affirmed.  No greater judge of conformation...the late great equine portraitist Richard Stone Reeves once said that Affirmed was one of the three most perfect equine specimens that he ever put to canvas, which is saying a lot.  The other two were Secretariat and Buckpasser.  Affirmed was a beauty....I still miss him.

07 Aug 2013 3:34 PM
Bill Two

Great stuff, Steve!  All you have to do is to mention the Doctor and I perk up.  I will always remember Haywood Hale Broun waz poetic on WOR about the horse - as only he could.  The thing is, he lived up to the hype.  Dr. Fager started the ball rolling for me and my interest in the sport is still keen all these years later.  Thanks for the memories.

07 Aug 2013 4:10 PM
Fran Loszynski

Even though I have been an avid racing fan ;there is alot I have missed. Thank you for adding to my album Steve. Steve you are horseracing.

07 Aug 2013 6:19 PM
nickie

thanks Steve. Fager is my all time fav, and although I was an Alydar fan, I must say the pic of Affirmed is impressive[I can see where he got his ability, that rear end is massive]. My recall of Cappys' call of the '63 Travers[my first] is still crystal clear, with a small but impressive field. Thanks again Steve for bringing back  ton of memories

07 Aug 2013 7:15 PM
The Doctor

Ta Wee - I totally agree with the last sentence in your previous blog. He was truly amazing!! I also like your moniker. What did she carry 141 lbs. in the Interborough Hcp! You'll never see those days again.

07 Aug 2013 9:16 PM
sysonby

Tears as I read the story...Tears as I read the comments from your loyal audience...Thank you hardly seems like enough....

07 Aug 2013 11:30 PM
Cassandra.Says

Mom's Command: what attitude! Brilliant name.

When we are lamenting the lack of recognition favorite horses get for great feats, we might also look at who's on their backs: Abigail Fuller's Triple Crown rides go from overlooked to overwritten, with other women riders credited with firsts that belong to Abby.

08 Aug 2013 6:43 AM
Determinato

Steve, your storys never fail at giving me the feeling of being right there and actually experiencing the entire thing! I havn't been to Saratoga since I was a young teen (1968-1970)When my dad used to follow an old favororite horse of his Judgeable! but after reading this I have to make the pigrimage! Thanks for the memories my friend!

Ron Marano

08 Aug 2013 9:06 AM
Slew

Wow! With tears in my eyes, I can say only, "Thank you for sharing such precious moments with us, Steve."

(Hmmmm..the Doc. Wow, again.)

10 Aug 2013 12:46 PM
TerriV

I am so jealous, Steve.  What a wonderous life of horses you have experienced!!  I love that you find the beauty in each and every one. And, we, your avid readers, can't thank you enough for sharing.

10 Aug 2013 8:05 PM
Lise from Maine

Hi!

Great stories and photos.

Thanks for sharing them with your audience.

Lise from Maine

22 Aug 2013 2:29 PM
Lise from Maine

Hi!

Any updates on Rachel Alexandra?

How is she?

Thank you!

Lise from Maine

22 Aug 2013 2:32 PM

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