A group of dedicated racing enthusiasts assembled on East Avenue each morning last year to soak in what little bit of horse racing they could outside of the Oklahoma Training Track. Though the views were limited, the same group of more than a dozen fans and photographers lined the fence each day without fail, thrilled to talk horses for a while instead of the usual pandemic discourse. This year, the view is different for the East Avenue crew, and so are the circumstances that bring them together.
In 1921, a headline-grabbing soap opera began in the racing world when Playfellow, a 3-year old full brother to Man o’ War was sold for $100,000, roughly $1.5 million in today’s money. The buyer was oil-baron Harry F. Sinclair, who later became notorious for his central role in the Teapot Dome oil scandal.
In my short life I have been fortunate enough to travel all across the country. I’ve gazed upon the alluring and untamed wilderness of the Northwest. Walked the arid desert sands of the Southwest. Left my imprint on warm beaches in the Southeast and had theirs left on me. Submerged myself in the dark salty grasp of both oceans and call the seemingly infinite miles of prairie in the central plains home. Yet, none of my travels or experiences prepared me for the sublime experience of the Northeast.
The mood at Suffolk Downs on October 4, 2014 was grim and the weather gods seemed to be sharing the despair that permeated throughout the local racing community. The raw, rainy, quintessentially miserable New England fall day was a fitting backdrop to what, at the time, looked like the swan song for horse racing at the East Boston oval.
Forty-one seconds. No horse will ever work a half-mile that fast on Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma training track – not on purpose anyway – but it was the bullet figure (:41.09 to be precise, sort of) for depositing 25 tons of dirt in less than a sixteenth of a mile Tuesday morning as a complete overhaul of the historic 1-mile oval nears completion.
Two black-and-white photos, grainy but matted and framed, sit on the table in front of Dr. John R.S. Fisher. He’s in the 50-year-old images, the jockey aboard Landing Party at the 17th fence of the 1971 Maryland Hunt Cup, and tries to conjure the feeling of flight.
“That’s the greatest fence I ever jumped,” he says, slowly, as if he’s feeling it again. Must be some feeling.