It will be a year next week. I was interviewing jockey Jesus Castanon about Shackleford. What's he like to ride? How does he feel? Is he different in a race vs. in a gallop? How long is that stride? Castanon talked, my recorder recorded, I jotted down some notes.
Over his right shoulder, Shackleford rolled around on the ground - tossing sand and dirt and grunts every which direction as a crowd watched. Then, all hell broke loose.
From the other side of Barn 29 came a clatter to make Santa Claus and his reindeer proud. "Bang-bang-banga-bang-bang." Then came a scuffle of hooves, the half-chime, half-rattle of snaps and screw eyes flying to the ground, the splatter of a webbing and the rubber/plastic thump of a bucket or a feed tub maybe. Finally, the calls of "Loose horse, loose horse, looooose horse." Around the corner came the horse, walking, jogging then cantering left-handed in the shedrow. Most of the cross rails were up, so he just kept going - missing one of the few open panels by a tack room. Grooms stepped out of stalls, reached out for him. He just kept making them miss, juking right and left like Barry Sanders and reaching the end of the barn, where he turned around and came back the other way - again ramping from a walk to a jog.
This time, he had dead aim on the open panel, freedom and sure backside chaos.
Castanon and I, maybe another witness or two, watched the whole thing unfold. The interview continued for a beat - Shackleford was feeling good, ready to run. His race in the Haskell was good, second to Coil in another game effort. Castanon said the 1 1/4 miles of the Travers would not be a worry, not based on how relaxed and comfortable the horse felt training at Saratoga. We both figured somebody would catch that horse before it got out of the barn. It wasn't our horse. We weren't in the barn. What were we going to do?
As the horse kept avoiding capture, the conversation paused.
Said but unspoken, we thought maybe we should do something. I put my notebook in my back pocket, my recorder in my front, my pen behind my ear and stepped toward the barn. Playing Joe Clancy Sr. to the best of my ability, I stepped into the shed and said "Whoa" nice and loud and firm. I said it again. Then calmer, a little slower, a little softer, a little easier. The gap in the rails was right behind me and the scared horse was right in front of me, but he stopped instead of scurried. I held out my hand, walked up slowly and grabbed his halter, gave him a pat on the neck, told him everything was going to be OK.
And it was.
The horse was Purest Form and back then he was a 2-year-old with one lifetime start (a sixth for maiden $60,000 here three days before I met him). Trained by David Fawkes, he didn't run again until December at Gulfstream but he's won twice this year - on the dirt at Gulfstream and on the turf at Calder. The son of Purim just missed at 42-1 in a tough optional claimer at Belmont June 28 and even tried two turf stakes at Monmouth Park.
The 3-year-old colt was entered in today's ninth race at Saratoga and had a shot at 6-1 until Fawkes decided to scratch.
"The race came up loaded with speed, it's kind of quick back for me, so I'll find something else for him," he said. "He's pretty useful."
Fawkes laughed when I told him my story - the first he'd heard of the incident.
Purest Form had gotten cast, stuck up against the wall while lying down and in the scramble to get up fell through his webbing and into the shedrow. Then he panicked.
"He didn't run you over?" said Fawkes Wednesday evening. "Thanks for catching him. Nobody ever told me about that. He got really sick on me least year, a really high temperature, like 106. That's why he didn't run for so long. I just had to back off, we kicked him out and brought him back this winter. He's been pretty good. He's run some really good races for me."
Hopefully, he makes it to Saratoga before the end of the meet. It will be nice to get reacquainted. He's just a horse who crossed my path, another in a long line, but I remember him, think of that look he shot me in the shedrow and watch him like I have something to do with him.
Which I guess I do.
***From the August 16 edition of The Saratoga Special.