The Inside Rail

The wave is about to crash. Saratoga has started to consume us. I wrote this for the Irish Field last week. 

Barclay Tagg called. The Kentucky Derby trainer doesn't call often, actually, ever. We made small talk, he eventually got to his point, correcting a story that I (luckily) didn't write and then we made more small talk.

"You ready for Saratoga?" Tagg asked.

I hesitated, really, didn't say anything, just let it hang there, a throwaway line that wouldn't go away.

"Yeah, I guess none of us are ever ready for Saratoga..." said Tagg, answering his own question. "It just happens, no matter if you're ready or not."

The Kentucky Derby winning trainer laughed. It wasn't a rollicking, slap-on-the-knee kind of laugh, more of a life-happens-with-or-without-our-approval kind of laugh while thinking about the pressure of Saratoga, when owners show up for breakfast at the track and count their horses' coughs, when every race is a tough race, when cocktail parties drift late into the night and the alarm goes off in the morning like a lightning bolt to a dead tree.

Yes, Saratoga is coming. The race meet in upstate New York begins July 22 and ends September 5. As I tell the rest of the world, it's the closest thing we have to a festival of racing, where there's still soul in the sport, where racing fans walk down the streets and fill the bars, where tradition hangs tough against a changing world. It's still sometimes called the august place to be, a name given when the meet lasted a month, the glorious, vibe-inducing month of August. The July-August-September place to be doesn't have the same ring to it.

You think five days at Royal Ascot is long? You wonder if you can survive Punchestown? Cheltenham wears you out? This is America, we supersize everything, our festival lasts 45 days, with racing every day but Tuesday during the six weeks. Throw in four nights of yearling sales, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a seven-stakes Travers card August 27 and enough fundraisers to fix the EU and Saratoga comes at you like a young and brazen Muhammad Ali - it can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

My Saratoga odyssey began with my parents in the early '70s, running a few over-faced jumpers and catching glimpse of the likes of Forego and Secretariat from the outside rail on the turn. It continued as a jump jockey, going for the month and galloping for gentlemen named Preger, Freeman, Johnson and O'Brien. In 2001, riding was over and The Saratoga Special was born, the daily racing newspaper has provided just as many thrills and spills as riding jumpers, just without the trips to the hospital.

I can't escape Saratoga's allure, it's there, burned to the bone. It's in Tagg as well, he went as a kid, rode jumpers and now plies his trade as one of the last hands-on horsemen in a changing world.

Somehow, Saratoga finds its way to a man's soul. Or a woman's soul, as Australian legend Gai Waterhouse found out last year.

"It's unbelievable, I am blown away. My husband and I and the group I'm with, all from Australia, we are absolutely blown away. The hospitality, the openness, to think you can come onto the track and watch from the Whitney Tower over at the training center on the Oklahoma," Waterhouse said, as she walked the backstretch on a brisk August morning. "The track here opens early, so many people here, families, not just older people, the families, you're educating the younger person to come to the track. It trains people to come to the track. When it comes to everyday racing, the word that was used today was fans, you have fans, that's the difference, you have fans in America that we don't have in Australia. I couldn't think of anything nicer than being here for a month."

Tagg and I agree. Now, tie on, it's coming whether we're ready or not.

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