We've had better starts. We've had worse starts.
The printer broke in the middle of the night of the first print run. We sleep while it prints, like waiting for Santa Claus, most mornings, we wake up and there's the paper on the porch. Sometimes, Santa gets re-routed, grounded or off course and the tree is bare when we wake up.
In a way, it was refreshing to get a call, well, two calls, from The Paper Lady at 5:15 and 5:27 this morning and a text at 5:11, "Sean...HELP." Just like old times. "Where's the paper?" has become our "Where's Waldo?" over all these years. Friday morning, it was somewhere between the Times Union in Albany and The Horseshoe in Saratoga, which is better than a lot of places it's been over the past 15 years. We scurried, audibled, but without the dismay and panic of prior years. As we've learned, when it's time to make the doughnuts, we make the doughnuts, but we can't always control when they actually cook. We know they'll be eaten when they're ready. The paper arrived, it was delivered and all was right in the world.
One down, 32 to go.
Irad Ortiz has never had a better start.
On the first day of his title defense, Ortiz hammered his stake, winning four races on the card, including the Grade 2 Lake George Stakes on the undefeated Ancient Secret. The 23-year-old Puerto Rico native won a dirt claimer with Roll Tide Roll, a turf claimer with Annie Rocks and a maiden claimer with Market Strength.
"It was great, sometimes you have a good day like this and other days you don't, we'll take it," Ortiz said as he walked back to the jocks' room after win number four. "I always start off a little slow and finish strong, hopefully we start good and still finish strong this year. It's the same, working hard."
Every morning, Ortiz and his agent, Steve Rushing, work hard. Most mornings at Saratoga, Rushing's 13-year-old daughter, Kylie, joins them, part of the team. At the end of each morning, the agent and his daughter go one way and the jockey goes the other, but not without a question.
"How many are you going to win today?" Kylie asked Ortiz Friday morning.
Ortiz didn't hesitate, "Three."
At the end of the day, just before Ortiz reached the jocks' room, Kylie darted through fans and held up four fingers at Ortiz. The girl laughed. The jockey laughed.
"You screwed up," Kylie said. "You won four."
"That's good," Ortiz said. "If every time, I win one more than I say, that would be perfect."
Ortiz walked into the chute of the jocks' room and tossed his arm number on the shelf.
"She loves the horse races, she's got the book like her dad, every day, she asks, 'How many are you going to win today?' I always say, 'Two. Three. One.' Today I said three."
Sometimes, it's good to be wrong.
Todd Pletcher's had better starts.
At 8:45, the main track opened after the renovation break for burners from Pletcher, Chad Brown and trainers far and wide.
Photographers readied on the far turn, trainers cradled a stopwatch in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other, clockers readied for the cascade. Then the lights flashed. Horsemen scanned the horizon in the distance for a loose one, but there wasn't a loose one. Then the red horse ambulance rumbled in the distance.
From nowhere, from everywhere, the word STRA-DI-VAR-I echoed and ricocheted from one person to another. Winner of two of his first three starts, fourth in the Preakness and fifth in the Belmont, the son of Medaglia d'Oro was pointing for the Curlin and then possibly the Travers. After a 5-furlong breeze in 1:00.87, that dream was over.
From the far turn, no one knew how bad, we just knew it was bad.
Pletcher's exercise rider, Nick Bush, off this set, screamed and wheeled his golf cart in a 180, nearly taking out a woman in a sundress. Trainer Mark Casse walked away, thinking about Tepin and World Approval due to work in an hour. Javier Castellano, on Destin, Stradivari's workmate, stared blankly as he slowed to a stop near the quarter-pole gap. Jason Beides leaned against a telephone pole and shook his head. Barbara Livingston and Teresa Genaro stood along the rail, one with a phone, one with a camera, both stalled.
A hour later, Pletcher went to turf works at the Oklahoma.
"Sorry, man," a clocker said.
"Sounds like he might be OK," Pletcher responded.
Stradivari suffered a condylar fracture in his right foreleg, he was at Rood and Riddle Friday night, fighting for his life.
He had the worst start of all.