Puffs of smoke emanated from cigars, circling the heads of spectators on the clubhouse apron. Mosquitoes, moths, and scores of other insects zipped to and fro, dancing in the beams of the track lights. The lights themselves hung from their posts and shone down on the half-mile stone dust racetrack. They are decades-old pillars, a reminder of an era when nighttime harness racing was one of the most popular sports in America.
Inside the clubhouse, beers flowed to those crowded around the bar. Programs, sheets and the elbows of those leaning on the counter obscured its wooden surface. Popcorn popped at the snack bar, the aroma of butter engulfed the room. Outside, the scent of fried dough hung in the air. A line of people at the window of a food truck parked near the finish line signaled its source.
Amongst it all, a crowd of a few thousand racing fans camped on outdoor benches, sat in grandstand seats or relaxed in the clubhouse restaurant. They did so just as thousands before them had in years gone by. As the track announcer’s voice crackled out of the sound system, one could imagine hearing the names of Nevele Pride, Mack Lobell, Niatross and more recently, Wiggle It Jiggleit, called at the storied venue.
Such was the scene Saturday night at Saratoga Raceway for the track’s biggest night of the year. The $260,000 Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial Pace attracted a competitive field of eight older pacers. Four horses and four geldings ranging from age 4 to 11. Between them, 783 starts, 214 wins and $12,939,039 in earnings. About an hour after Lady Eli crossed the finish in the Diana and an hour before they would race, the Gerrity field took to the track to warm up.
Somewhere in L A came into view first. The 6-year-old Sombeachsomewhere gelding sports a narrow blaze that divides his face in two. He’s 29-for-101 with $1,243,296 earned and has a host of George Morton Levy Division and Open Handicap victories to his name at Yonkers for trainer Rich Banca. The Hilltop Oval’s leading driver, Jason Bartlett will drive. He’s two wins away from 7,000 lifetime.
All Bets Off came around next. Trained by Ron Burke, the 6-year-old son of Bettor’s Delight won the $200,000 Battle of Lake Erie Stakes at Northfield Park in June, one of his multiple stakes victories that have earned him $2,461,127.
Mach It So paced into view next. The 7-year-old son of Mach Three entered off a victory in the $427,400 William R. Haughton Memorial Pace at The Meadowlands July 15. Jeff Bamond Jr., who trained 2015 Gerrity winner P H Supercam, jogged the gelding in his black and red checkered colors.
Boston Red Rocks was next. Winless this year, but won the Breeders Crown at 2 and sports $1,259,011 in earnings. Sintra came along, too. The only horse in the field without at least $1 million in earnings, but the 4-year-old sported the fastest mark of 1:47.2.
Keystone Velocity paced around the turn, clad in blue wraps on his front legs and a matching hood. After missing 18 months due to an ownership dispute, Rene Allard bought the 9-year-old Western Hanover gelding and put him back to work. This year, he’s won the $529,000 George Morton Levy Memorial Final at Yonkers and the $500,000 Ben Franklin at Pocono Downs and set a track record at Goshen of 1:53.4.
Bit Of A Legend scored in front of the crowd. Adorned in Pete Tritton’s red colors from head to toe, the New Zealand bred was a multiple Group 1 winner at home before coming to Tritton last year. He won all five legs of the 2016 Levy Series and took the Final and finished second in the Gerrity to Wiggle It Jiggleit. This year, he’s won the $109,500 Molson Pace at Western Fair.
Finally, Clear Vision. The 11-year-old with 217 starts and $2,729,921 earned. He wears blue blinkers and a matching hood as he navigates the Spa oval. In the midst of his best season in years, he’s 6-for-18 with $175,984 already earned and won in a career best 1:48.2 at The Meadowlands in June.
Race time. The field came out to the same recorded bugle call that’s been played before tens of thousands of races. The crowd on the apron swelled as people emptied from the clubhouse, hoping to see the race with their own eyes instead of on a screen. They stood as silhouetted figures as the yellowish glow of fluorescent lights poured out of the clubhouse windows.
Soon, the horses picked up speed behind the mobile starting gate. David Miller pushed Mach It So off the wings. Keystone Velocity fired from post eight. Boston Red Rocks left along the pylons to join them and All Bets Off showed speed too. Somewhere In L A left in mid field. They all wanted the lead.
Boston Red Rocks won the first battle, stuffing All Bets Off into the pocket and clicking off a quarter in a blistering :26.4. Bartlett edged Somewhere In L A out between horses and ranged up. Keystone Velocity continued to press three-wide and Sintra charged to his inside to join them. This wasn’t a lineup, back down the half, bring them home race harness fans are accustomed to seeing. This was a cutthroat duel with big money on the line.
Somewhere In L A crossed over past a half in :54.3, a bruising pace for a horse parked the first lap. He faced immediate pressure from Sintra. Five lengths behind the battle, Jordan Stratton slid Bit Of A Legend off the pylons and began tracking Mach It So’s cover.
Somewhere In L A led through three-quarters in 1:21.2. He put away Sintra, who’s strides shortened after a long first-over grind. Boston Red Rocks loomed in the pocket. Mach It So angled three-wide turning for home and Bit Of A Legend tipped off his cover.
Somewhere In L A fought bravely, but was spent. Boston Red Rocks didn’t have the acceleration needed for a passing lane victory. Bit Of A Legend had the freshest legs. While others faltered, he paced strong, reaching out with every stride. He struck the lead inside the sixteenth pole and powered away to win by 2 in 1:50.3.
Stratton beamed as he guided Bit Of A Legend to the winner’s circle. He smiled wide the length of the stretch as the fans applauded his efforts. After taking the win photo, Stratton hopped out of the sulky outside the paddock. Local driver Bruce Aldrich helped him unhook the bike while Tritton held the horse. The drivers embraced, competition set aside in a moment of celebration.
“It’s great to come back to the winner’s circle and everybody’s cheering and yelling. There’s people everywhere,” Stratton said. “Last year, we had a good time, but Wiggle It Jiggleit stole the show. My mom was in the winner’s circle and she was happy and crying. It means a lot to her.”
Stratton headed into the paddock and joined the other Gerrity drivers huddled around an old TV to watch the replay. He narrated his handy work as he looked on.
“He had a lot of pace, but I still had to be four-wide on the last turn and I couldn’t really see how they were going up front, if they had anything left, so I just made a move and still turning for home, I was waiting for someone in the passing lane. I didn’t know if I was going to get there or not.”
Stratton’s drive was perfect. He saved ground early, got out at the right time, and pounced on softened rivals. Despite his mount’s lackluster recent finishes, his last two efforts resulting in a fifth and sixth at Yonkers, both from post seven, Stratton felt confident going into the Gerrity.
“At Yonkers, if he gets assigned the 7 or 8 hole, it’s hard to get into the race,” he said. “Last week I was really happy with him. He came off cover, he came flying, he paced right through the wire. I kicked the plugs and he came on more. I was really happy with him coming in.”
Stratton headed down the first row of stalls in the paddock. He stopped to accept congratulations from a boy in his early teens. The kid wore driving colors and had been warming up horses before the races. Stratton offered him his goggles. He continued on to Bit Of A Legend’s stall, where the horse stood quietly, neck down, muzzle buried in a red bucket filled with water. Tritton stood by, attending to him. No groom, no assistant. Just a trainer and his horse.
Stratton has first call on all of Tritton’s horses at Yonkers and the partnership has helped catapult the young reinsman to be second in the driver standings downstate with 192 wins and $4,624,482 in purses this year.
“Me and Pete could be winning the $260,000 Gerrity or we could be qualifying one and it’s the same. Go out, go have fun, good luck. There’s zero pressure,” Stratton said on their partnership. “I had a good career before I met Pete, but Bit Of A Legend really solidified that in the stakes races, I can compete.”
Tritton hooked Bit Of A Legend into the cross ties and offered him another drink. The stallion accepted and slurped up some more water. He stood patiently and quietly. The 8-year-old just won his 37th race and took a new lifetime mark as his Gerrity win bested his 1:51 effort at Yonkers last year. His earnings swelled to $1,736,956.
“He’s just a great little horse. I always thought he was a nice horse, but I never really knew he was this good,” Tritton admired. “It’s remarkable how he can stay sound and keep his form racing on a half all the time. He’s such a good little pacer and he looks after himself, so he doesn’t take any ill effects from it.”
Like Bit Of A Legend, Tritton’s career started Down Under. A native Australian, Tritton’s stable is almost entirely comprised of Australian and New Zealand imports. Yonkers is Tritton’s home base and Saturday’s Gerrity was his first victory in Saratoga. His only other start here came with Bit Of A Legend in last year’s Gerrity.
“When when you get to a local town and there’s a big crowd, it feels like the old days when I was a kid. It’s always good to win a race under that sort of environment,” he said. “The money is good, but you can’t replace the kick you get racing these good horses and eventually coming trumps. It doesn’t always happen, so you’ve got to savor it when it does.”
Winning wasn’t on Tritton’s mind when he made the drive up to Saratoga. Starting from post 5 with quality horses to his inside, Tritton thought Bit Of A Legend would be lucky to get a check. The public agreed, sending the horse off at odds of 15-1.
“If I had drawn the first three, I would have been a lot more confident, but as it turned out, that might have blew up in our hand because we might have kept close and done too much work,” he reasoned. “I thought we’d get too far back. Which we were, but they really, a lot of horses did a lot of work. The horse went super. I wouldn’t want to have it again, I’m just happy with how it went.”
Tritton expects to bring Bit Of A Legend back to race in the weekly Open Handicaps at Yonkers. The horse isn’t paid into any other Grand Circuit stakes, but could show up at Pocono Downs or The Meadowlands in an attempt to set a faster mark on a big track.
“I’ll probably continue to race him at Yonkers or if we see a nice race for him somewhere. I’d like to get a good mark on him at Pocono or The Meadowlands one day. I might run him Hambo Day. I’d like to get a nice mark on him because he’s still a stud and it could be useful.”
Tritton went back to tending to Bit Of A Legend. They had a long ride home ahead. The fans in the grandstand started to spill out into the parking lots. Those who stuck around hoped to see Bartlett win his 7,000th. He came up one short, but earned it the next day at Yonkers. The old harness track had been alive, even if for just one night a year.