In the Paddock

A passport isn’t something needed or even thought about during the course of writing, editing, producing and distributing The Saratoga Special.

There simply isn’t a lot of traveling, near or far, unless trips to the Saratoga Spa State Park, Wilton or the Saratoga Battlefield for the occasional trail run count as travel. Lake George? Vermont? Funny. It could happen after sales week but more than likely not until September. 

That changed Tuesday. 

And it all started before the horses hit the paddock for the meet’s first race. 

Chatting and walking with Mark Casse back and forth from his barn to the clubhouse to watch workers the morning of Opening Day, the main objective was a rundown of his Saratoga string for the Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour. 

Wonder Gadot came up during the interview, even though the Kentucky Oaks runner-up isn’t in Saratoga. The winner of the Queen’s Plate over males June 30 at Woodbine, Wonder Gadot could still wind up in the Saratoga string pending her next race. 

Casse mentioned the Prince of Wales.

“That’s right, the Prince of Wales is on a Tuesday. Joe, Sean and I always sit around the office that day, watching it on TV and we always say, ‘We should have gone’ or ‘How long is the drive?’ or ‘One of these years we’re going to go,’ ” I said. 

“I’m flying over that day with Johnny; we may have room on the plane. Do you want to go if we do?” Casse said. 

“Uh, yeah.”

“Let me see how big the plane is. If you want to, fly over with us.”

“If there’s room, I’m in. It sounds great.”

“You’re not a felon are you?”

“No, not even any warrants.”

“Good, because if there’s any issue and we get stopped at the border and you can’t get in, you’re on your own. Don’t forget your passport.”

Fast-forward about 36 hours and after he sent out Strike Silver to a runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Sanford, Casse confirmed a spot on the plane and it was set. Fly out of the Saratoga County Airport, arrive in Buffalo, drive across the border, hit Fort Erie in time for the start of the card, watch Wonder Gadot go for the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown in the $400,000 Prince of Wales, fly back. 

A little after 2 p.m. we hopped on a King Air B-90 series twin-prop plane and not much more than an hour later we landed in Buffalo – a smooth ride after a few bumps early and in the middle of the hop. A driver in a black Yukon met us on the tarmac, quickly informed us “another American jockey was looking for a ride,” and off we went to the main terminal at Buffalo International Airport. Five minutes later we picked up Joe Rocco Jr., in from Kentucky to ride Home Base in the Prince of Wales.

Casse, a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame and a three-time winner of the Prince of Wales, is no stranger at Fort Erie. Velazquez had been there, riding Battery to a fifth in the 2016 Prince of Wales. Rocco and I were newbies. 

“It’s like River Downs,” Casse said as we made the less than 5-minute ride from the border crossing to the track. 

“It’s small, definitely,” Velazquez concurred.

Pulling in it was obvious the assessment was spot on. We decided on a place to meet after the races, Rocco joking, “Give me an extra 20 minutes to get my trophy.”

Further proof the correct assessment became evident a few steps onto the grounds. Fort Erie featured bits and pieces of every little to mid-sized track you’ve ever known, part Ellis, Finger Lakes and River Downs mixed with some Calder, Fairplex and Turfway. Food trucks dotted the area behind the grandstand and clubhouse near the paddock – Classic Treats ice cream, Bombero’s Gourmet Nachos, la Cucina Ago-oo, Redline BBQ and Vaticano Catering cooking up digs that cast a delicious mélange of odors in the air ranging from pulled pork to hot dogs and hamburgers to cheesesteaks. 

Large banners with the slogan “Fort Erie: Alive and Kicking” hung on various parts of the stand, along with others advertising the Prince of Wales Special, Peameal Bacon with Cheddar or Roast Beef on a Bun for $6.75 were taped up elsewhere. Tempted by both, I passed.

Two national anthems – the American and Canadian – were played between the second and third races, the locals singing along to “O Canada” and it felt like the moments before the World Cup without all the corporate advertising and close camera cuts of the players heads and their tight jerseys. 

Casse settled into a seat at a table with his daughter and son-in law Camille and Cody Greco, in from Toronto for the day, and Canadian division assistant Kathryn Sullivan. Casse dug into some work, admitting he’d be more relaxed finishing it up and then catching on news of his daughter’s first few weeks of marriage. Friends, colleagues and fans stopped by the table in the Prince of Wales Room every so often, including legendary Woodbine-based handicapper Jim Bannon and Hall of Fame jockey Sandy Hawley.

“If you need a rider Mark I can still make the weight,” Hawley said, toting a small plate of food and looking like he might be able to tack the 121 assigned Wonder Gadot against her five male opponents toting 126 apiece. 

“You were my next choice, but Johnny’s here though,” Casse said. 

Dark clouds, some thunder and lightning off in the distance beyond the top of the stretch rolled in about 6 p.m., roughly an hour and a half before post time for the Prince of Wales. The crowds on the apron and by the Tiki Bar area not far from the finish line didn’t seem to mind, lines swelled to snag a snack or a drink. One draft beer line wasn’t as deep and a Rickard’s Red only cost $4.25. Toss down $6 and the server will say “thanks darling.”

A band played on the apron about 30 yards from the finish and an announcement on the PA informed the patrons they’d continue to play “rain or shine,” with the caveat they’d move under cover if the skies opened. That didn’t take long as a steady rain fell between the sixth and seventh, leaving the open main track a sea of slop, water standing on top.

While well-wishers continued to pass the table, saying things like “Good luck, eh,” Casse sat quiet, his left hand on his chin, looking down at the track while the tractors rolled over the soaked surface. 

“Hey Tom, let’s go down and watch this next race. I want to see what the track’s like,” he said.

After walking down the stairs, chatting about not getting as many steps in compared to a normal morning at Saratoga, we found a spot on the apron. Then we realized the seventh race was an allowance race on the grass. 

“We’re not going to learn anything here,” Casse said, making his way instead to the paddock with his entourage in tow.

A few minutes after the seventh race, won by the favored Three Ring Circus, we headed to the No. 1 stall under the chipping white-painted roof of the saddling area and waited for Wonder Gadot. Gary Sutherland and Wayne Browne led the Medaglia d’Oro filly into the paddock a few minutes later, with assistant Paul Lehman right behind. 

“You guys working hard?” Casse asked Lehman.

Velazquez, decked out in Gary Barber’s pink and black silks, walked out of the jock’s room a few minutes later and out to the paddock to wait for Casse to finish an interview with TSN, the ESPN of Canada. 

As big a rock star as Casse seemed in the upstairs dining room, Velazquez took home star of the day honors. Fans around the paddock cheered him on before getting a leg up, shouting “Go Johnny V.,” as Sutherland steered the filly around a big puddle in the middle of the pathway.

Casse didn’t mess with any last-minute instructions.

“Johnny’s won a lot more races than me,” he said. “He knows the filly and he knows what every other horse in the race is going to do.”

Velazquez also knew what he was going to do with Wonder Gadot. After a nearly five-minute drag that caused Casse to fret some more, the starting gate opened and Velazquez put Wonder Gadot on the lead. Casse watched from his box, alternating his viewing through his binoculars at the infield monitor and the action on the track. Never seriously challenged, Wonder Gadot rolled to a 5 3/4-length win. 

The crowd went nuts, and cheered the filly home. As Casse walked down to the mud-soaked track, fans congratulated him and implored him to stay “home” for the final jewel of the Canadian classic series. 

“Congratulations Mr. Casse, please come back for the Breeders’ Stakes,” a young fan said.

“We’ll see,” Casse responded. 

The rain left the track a mess, but seemingly not much worse than the conditions at two of our spring classics – the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – this year. The next several minutes were a blur, stepping into the ankle-deep mud, meeting Wonder Gadot and Velazquez and walking across a wooden walkway to the infield winner’s circle. 

“Get in there Tom,” Casse said, and my fifth winner’s circle appearance on the other end of the camera ensued. The other four? Way back on Memorial Day in 1999 is first, when my friend Chuck Simon won his first race with Midnight Miner in a maiden-claimer at Churchill Downs; the second when Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds asked me to join his team after Ethan Man won the Grade 3 Swale Stakes at old Gulfstream Park back in 2002. It’s a long gap after that, to 2013 when Apse won an allowance hurdle for Sean Clancy and Riverdee Stable here in Saratoga, and the fourth came in 2016 when my friends Charlie and Amy LoPresti invited me in when Dear Elaine won an allowance race on Closing Day of the 2016 Keeneland fall meet. 

The Prince of Wales being a classic, the scene certainly packed a punch. 

Casse looked happy and relieved – he admitted later he considered scratching the filly because of the conditions – while Sullivan wiped away tears. Sutherland, Browne and Lehman stood proud before walking off with the filly. Velazquez eyed Casse, who agreed to meet the press back upstairs, and gave him the “we’re in a hurry” look before dashing off to the jocks’ room. 

After a five-minute press conference, goodbyes to Camille and Cody and another five-minute wait for Velazquez and Rocco in the parking lot, we were back in the Yukon headed for the airport. Two hours later and after an uneventful stop at the border – no felonies after all – and an even smoother ride in the King Air we could see the lights of Saratoga Springs off the left side of the plane. 

“I know you guys do this all the time so you’ll probably forget it, but I never will,” I said, feeling nostalgic as the lights from the runway came into view. “I’ve seen you all and interviewed you both for years, but from now on I’ll always think about the time we went to Fort Erie for the Prince of Wales.”

We said our goodbyes a few minutes later, I passed off a grocery bag carrying three sets of silks for some horses Casse would run soon at Saratoga. As the red lights of Velazquez’s and Casse’s SUVs faded away from the parking lot I turned the key to start the ignition and thought, “Wow, what just happened?” for the first time all day. 

Casse and I chatted again Wednesday morning, reminiscing about the flights and the race. Later in the day I texted Casse to say thanks again and he responded in a way only someone so generous to offer a day trip to remember could.

“You made the trip better,” he said.