To regular readers of this column it will come as no surprise that I know far less about horse racing than you do. A good chunk of our readership, after all, is active in the sport in one capacity or another.
To compound my handicap of this broken arrow in my reportorial quiver, I have an abiding curiosity. Which means that wandering the backstretch, I am a dumb question waiting to happen.
After a post-race interview with Javier Castellano several weeks ago I was struck by how diligent and disciplined he was in doing his job. He was so “professional.” I started wondering what are the attributes that make a jockey or a trainer “professional.”
Technically in American sports, the word professional simply means that you are paid for what you do. You are a professional rather than an amateur. But what I wanted to talk about was a step up from that; I wanted to talk about professionalism.
And so then came all those dumb questions I just warned you about.
I used to have a dog that would look at me and cock his head in a way that said, “What the hell are you talking about?” Some of the looks on the faces of the trainers and jockeys I talked to reminded me of that dog.
In retrospect, the answers I got were pretty uniform and obvious. They might have been definitions of professionalism in virtually any field: a “professional” has a good work ethic, has integrity, is disciplined and, yes, works hard at developing his or her talent.
One trainer talked about presentation as part of being professional. “On race day I want my horse ready to run, of course, but I also want him and our team looking good. I don’t want any shavings or bits of hay in a colt’s tail when he walks into the paddock.”
Trainer Tony Dutrow said, “Beyond all the obvious things, a professional has a responsibility to represent the game properly. He has to show respect for his workers, the owners, the fans and the sport.”
Well that’s it, I thought, I guess I’ve pretty much got my definition. But a few days later I discovered another dimension. A mental one.
On two successive days, Dutrow stood proudly in the winner’s circle at Saratoga, having just watched one of his horses cross the finish line first. Wednesday, Aug. 25, it was Saratoga Chrome under Eric Cancel who had stormed from ninth to pass them all and cross the line three-quarters of a length the winner.
The race ended at 4:01 p.m. By 4:03 Irad Ortiz Jr., who’d ridden the horse that finished third, had lodged an objection against Dutrow’s winner and for the next eight minutes the trainer stood in front of a crowd of two dozen or so people, all excited and waiting to be in the winning circle photo. My eyes were on Dutrow, presumably sweating out the stewards’ decision, standing straight and still, watching repeat showings of the stretch run on the infield jumbotron.
At 4:11, the stewards disqualified Saratoga Chrome and placed her third. The runner-up, Waterville, who had been clear of the incident was declared the winner. Dutrow calmly departed the winner’s circle and Waterville connections moved in.
Less than twenty-four hours later Dutrow was in the winner’s circle again. This time it was Clear Vision going wire to wire in a $25,000 claimer and romping by 4 3/4 lengths. Again, Dutrow stood pleased and calm waiting for Clear Vision also with Cancel to enter the enclosure for the winner’s circle photo.
This time there was no change in the order of finish and Dutrow walked away with the first-place money … but without the horse. He’d lost his winner to a claim.
So, two visits to the winner’s circle in two days. Once he loses the race and the second time he loses the horse. It seemed to me that Dutrow’s job must be even more nerve-wracking than mine as an out-of-my-depth intern. Clearly being a professional trainer must have a mental discipline to it also, some philosophy that allows him to strap himself into the wild roller-coaster he rides each day.
Catching up to Dutrow later I commiserated with him on his disqualification and the loss of his winner the second day.
“I look at it differently,” he said. “In Saratoga Chrome I see a nice filly running first-time long and first-time turf, and look at what she was able to do. And she seemed to do it easily. Yes, her number came down, but I’m elated and thrilled to have her.
“The claim? Yes, I knew it could happen, you always do. And yes, I’d love to still have him and be able to run him again, but these things even out over time.”
The eminent American philosopher and former centerfielder for the New York Yankees, John Milton “Mickey” Rivers, once summed up the essence of his much-studied philosophy saying: “I never worry about things I can’t control, because if I can’t control them, why worry about them? And I never worry about things I can control, because if I can control them, why worry about them?”
It seems clear to me that to be a professional trainer at this level one has to have a Rivers-ian point of view. Dutrow certainly has. Because as a trainer some things are just out of your hands.
“Most of them,” Dutrow said. “I focus on the things I can control, decisions that I can make that will hopefully help the horse.”