Editors Note: We’re wrapping up the 23rd year of The Special with some moments from the meet. You can find the complete editions from 2023 here.
A Win?: One In Vermillion, connections at a loss after tragic Grade 1 score. By Joe Clancy. August 30 edition.
From a spot in front on the clubhouse porch just outside the winner’s circle, Norma Martinez saw what everybody else saw at Saratoga Race Course Saturday and looked up with a one-word question.
Yes, you won.
Her face lost the emotion, the spark, the pride it had two minutes earlier. She looked down, half-ashamed, half-sorry, all gutted. The glee of watching One In Vermillion, a horse she and her husband Esteban train at Canterbury Park in Minnesota and Turf Paradise in Arizona, simply compete in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes disappeared.
One In Vermillion became a Grade 1 winner Saturday, Esteban Martinez a Grade 1-winning trainer, Norma Martinez the wife of a Grade 1-winning trainer, for all the wrong reasons. New York Thunder suffered a fatal breakdown in the stretch while well clear, leaving victory to the late-running California-bred owned by Jonathan Kalman.
The race looked like a coronation, until it didn’t. New York Thunder, unbeaten in four starts for AMO Racing and trainer Jorge Delgado, set fractions of :22.29 and :44.40 and kicked away in the stretch. Inside the final sixteenth of a mile, he broke his left front leg and fell. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione rolled under the inside rail as the five other runners continued.
Last and 11 lengths behind the leader after a half-mile, One In Vermillion looked like the 20-1 shot he was until swinging wide off the turn for Irad Ortiz Jr. and picking up horses – Dwyer winner Fort Bragg, Grade 1-placed Drew’s Gold, Indiana Derby winner Verifying and finally Grade 1 winner Arabian Lion. One In Vermillion finished 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Verifying, with Arabian Lion another 1 1/2 lengths behind in third after 1:22.63 for 7 furlongs over the muddy, sealed track.
New York Thunder was euthanized on the track, the second high-profile breakdown of the 2023 Saratoga season after unbeaten Maple Leaf Mel was stricken on her way to victory in the Grade 1 Test Aug. 5. It was the seventh fatal injury during a race at Saratoga this season including Nobel, injured after finishing fifth in Saturday’s fifth race on the turf. Gaffalione, also aboard that horse, was not seriously injured in either fall.
The Jerkens aftermath felt much like the Test’s. One In Vermillion returned to silence instead of applause. Kalman, who watched with his wife Gina and family from a table in the Turf Terrace, greeted his horse with relief instead of joy. The Martinezes met One In Vermillion on the track, snapped a lead shank to the bit, got water on him as fast as they could, thanked Ortiz and followed directions to make a long, weird walk up the stretch to the test barn. There was no winner’s circle visit, no trophy presentation, no race replay to watch, no post-race interview for Fox Sports. A handful of family and friends of the race’s namesake, on hand to make a presentation and remember, left in shock. The trophies went back inside.
Hours later, standing on the wash pad outside Barn 70 on the Oklahoma side, Jonathan Kalman tried to put it into words.
“Part of me feels sick to my stomach and part of me feels happy for the horse and for Esteban and Norma,” he said. “They drove 20 hours to get here. None of us had been to Saratoga before. He ran great. He showed us he has so much talent, that he can run that way, with these horses. We’re so proud of him and if he had just finished second, we would have been so happy. You feel bad for the connections, and anybody associated with the horse. It’s really, really tough. It’s hard to process. We don’t know how to feel.”
A few minutes later, Kalman asked who won the Travers. He’d missed the feature, won by Arcangelo. He and Gina sat in folding chairs outside the shedrow while Esteban and Norma finished doing up their chestnut colt.
Standing bandages and hoof-packing applied, One In Vermillion stood loose in the stall. Esteban hung a hay net above a Santa Anita Derby webbing and the son of Army Mule dove in. Every minute or so, he lifted his head and peered over the hay – ears pricked at attention, eyes to the west as the sky tried to stay blue in the last stretches of sun.
“He looks taller than he did,” Gina Kalman said. “Bigger. A little prouder.”
She was right. One In Vermillion didn’t grow in an afternoon, but there was something. Perhaps the gazes of five people trying to make sense of a strange, sad day helped pull it into view.
“Taller than yesterday? I don’t think so,” said Esteban. “I see him every day and every time we run him, he is the smallest one in the field. He knows that he won, maybe, or that he did his best.”
That had to be enough.
Kalman grew up in New Jersey, went racing at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, went to college in Boston, moved out west to get away from winter and lives in Phoenix. When he could afford it, he claimed Gaileta for $8,500 at Turf Paradise in December 2021. He had a graphic designer create custom silks – “Arizona, desert, horse racing, power, strength, speed, beauty” were the instructions – and she nailed it. Two weeks off the claim, Gaileta finished fourth in the Sun Devil Sprint Stakes. Two months later, she won and got claimed for $3,000. Claimers I Am Allthtyouare, Market King, Mountain Spirit went through the Kalman stable in 2022.
Purchased for $26,000 at the Arizona Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s yearling sale in 2021, One In Vermillion made his debut last spring – and changed everything. He finished second going 4 1/2 furlongs in April, won a stakes in May, missed seven months with shins, and closed 2022 with another stakes win. One In Vermillion earned $89,620 last year.
He was just getting started. The only horse Kalman owns, now, opened 2023 with a stakes win at Sunland Park in January, finished fifth in two graded stakes (including the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby), won the Laz Barrera at Santa Anita in May, added an allowance at Canterbury in June, lost the Iowa Derby by interfering with a rival in July and finished third in the West Virginia Derby Aug. 6. The Jerkens was a big swing and a long journey, but shipping doesn’t bother their horse and neither do unfamiliar racetracks.
“We are happy about being here,” Esteban said Friday morning. “I never thought about coming to a place like Saratoga. I just hope he runs his race. I will be really happy if he could win.”
One In Vermillion ran his race. His trainer was happy about that. The rest, well, the rest just hung there at the barn afterward.
A horseman most of his life, officially a trainer since 2017, Esteban patted One In Vermillion on the shoulder Saturday evening, dodged a bite from the Grade 1 winner, looked at Norma across the way and thought about another horse under their care.
“I claimed a filly two years ago, for her, for Norma, and the first time she ran for us she broke down,” he said of Fast Anna filly Millard’s Comet. “After that, my wife doesn’t like to watch the horses run. I don’t know if you saw her today, but she didn’t know we won. We know anything can happen in a race, to anybody. You just want them back in your barn after a race. If we don’t win, we don’t win.”
Norma didn’t hear her husband say that, but found the same theme while trying to explain Saturday.
“You know what? This horse is my baby; he is their horse, but he is my horse too,” she said with a nod toward One In Vermillion and the Kalmans. “I had a filly, a really, really good filly. Everything was OK, everything, she was good and when she was running she broke her knee. That’s why I don’t watch now. She tried too hard. Today, Esteban told me, ‘It is OK, the horse is good.’ Always, always, I don’t care if they win, I just want them to come back in the barn.”