Cup of Coffee: Tourist’s View

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My friend George Baker finally made the trip to Saratoga, after I’ve been touting, begging, imploring him since we met on the gallops in England so many years ago. We hit it off immediately and the Bakers have become my drop zone when I go to England. 

England has Cheltenham. We have Saratoga.

Baker and his friend/assistant Pat Murphy (and their wives Candida and Val) have showed me Cheltenham, the way it’s meant to be done and I’ve tried to reciprocate. If you don’t like Cheltenham or Saratoga, save yourself the trouble and find another sport.

Turf Club for lunch at Cheltenham. Third-floor dining room at Saratoga. Second-to-last down the hill in the Queen Mother at Cheltenham. Sixteenth pole of the Alabama at Saratoga. Pint of Guinness in the Guinness Village at Cheltenham. Cup of tea at the Morning Line Kitchen at Saratoga. Brisk, misty mornings at Cheltenham. Brisk, misty mornings at Saratoga.

Baker, training a burgeoning string of flat horses and jumpers, puts me on two sets before we go racing at Cheltenham. It’s a good way to clear the head after a long day at the races and pubs and it’s all hands on deck when it’s Cheltenham time. At Saratoga, I put him on the “golf buggy” and we travel the Saratoga backstretch, perhaps for the same reason. It’s debatable who’s worse, I as an exercise rider or Baker as a paperboy. If you saw loose Specials Saturday morning, blame the bloke with his blue and white “trainers” on the golfcart dashboard instead of on the loose papers at his feet.

“George, that’s Rachel Alexandra. We’ll sit here on the turn and wait for her to gallop past.”

Last year’s Horse of the Year plies her trade, tougher in the morning than in years past, she’s gearing up for her run in the Personal Ensign. In England, horses train head-to-tail, up a short, half-mile gallop, allowing the hill to hold the horse. Rachel’s exercise rider needed that hill Saturday morning. She had him one wrong move from gone. Baker was gobsmacked.

“George, that’s Quality Road.”

Quality Road walks past, the Adonis of the backside, he awes at the walk. The shock of forelock shrouding his eyes, the forever hip, the calculation of every move. The golf buggy stops and we watch him cross Union Avenue, just as so many greats have done in the past.

“George, that’s Fly Down on the outside, he’s a good 3-year-old, getting ready for the Travers.”

Neck bowed, head down, Fly Down breezes an easy half over the Oklahoma training track, cruising past, in 48.35 seconds. Long stride, fluid as a stream.

“George, this is Clare Court.”

The golf buggy dips under the tunnel of the Nelson Avenue turn of the pony track, up the other side, like going back in time. The trees, the space, the light. Mike Hushion’s barn, my favorite on the grounds, raked and shaked, keeping the standard. Bobby Ribaudo’s barn, not as grand, but just as functional. Open air stalls. It’s good enough for Grand Couturier.

“George, this is the Annex. Used to be strictly jumpers, now it’s mostly flat horses except for Sheppard and Voss.”

Lead Us Not and Divine Fortune, old homebred jumpers, mingle with Forever Together and Fantasia, Augustin turf icons. Two dogs, tied together, wrestle in the shedrow. Sheppard says he’s not in charge of the dogs. Tom Voss usually wins three jump races at the meet, this year he’s won three flat races including the John’s Call. Voss rides past on The Looper, the closest thing to John’s Call. From the Annex, we deliver papers to Shadwell’s private stable. Baker’s thinking, ‘I wonder how I could get this yard when I make my Saratoga invasion next summer.’

“George, this is Blame. He’s the best older horse in the country right now.”

The Whitney winner goes about his business like a soldier. Completely at ease with himself and his surroundings, ‘it’s my world.’ We have seen him develop from Curlin winner at 3 to Whitney winner – and leader in the clubhouse – at 4.

“George, that’s A Little Warm breezing, he’s one of the best 3-year-olds here, getting better all the time.”

The Jim Dandy winner stretches his legs, going five-eighths over the main track in 1:01.58, ninth fastest at the distance, one week away from the Travers. No horse is doing better than A Little Warm.

“George, this is the Reading Room. It’s a private club, we’ve been invited to a cocktail party. Just act like you’ve known Carl and Jen forever.”

Pat, my nephew Jack, George and I stroll through the gates of the Reading Room. They check their cell phones to make sure they’re off. George looks around and you can see he’s starting to like this place. ‘What happens here the rest of the year?’ Nothing. Only open during the six-week meet. He nods, meets Carl and Jen and takes a mini quiche from the tray. I slip out to go to work, he’s talking to Jen’s father like he’s known him all his life, then he mingles with Shug, Henry and Brendan. I think George likes it here.