The Finale: Looking back at Saratoga 2012

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"2012The action at Saratoga Race Course ends every year on Labor Day, sending horses and people to their respective homes – Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls, Albany, Canada, Manhattan, Kentucky, Long Island, Maryland, pretty much everywhere.

ST’s project The Saratoga Special finished its 12th year much like it did the other 11 – exhausted, amazed, worn out, awed, overwhelmed, happy, sad. We published 35 newspapers, none smaller than 32 pages (a new record). We hit most – most – deadlines (latest must have been 1:30 a.m. on a sales night or Travers Weekend; earliest was 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday).

As usual, the meet included a little bit of everything. The races were as short at 5 furlongs and as long as 2 3/8 miles. Winners were odds-on, and not so. Losers were many and noble.

In short, we couldn’t do it without a whole slew of people. The Special has a small staff, but the project takes a village. To all, thank you. High on that list are loyal readers, who sought out the paper, sent us e-mail, took an extra for their friend or their “brother in prison,” baked us treats, stopped by the office, gave us CDs of some classics, served us tea and coffee, took photos of empty racks, laughed at our jokes. Some of my favorites were the NYRA parking lot gang (Phil the bus driver is the only name I got), the couple from Texas, the seat-savers on the second floor of the clubhouse, the security guards at various stations around the track, the gang at Merrill Scherer’s barn. Somebody told me Five Points ran out of papers frequently. Sorry, and thanks.

And now for a few superlatives:

Race of the Meet: The Travers. How can you argue with a $1 million race that ends in a dead heat between and odds-on favorite and a longshot? Golden Ticket hugged the rail and gained an advantage. Alpha circled wide off the turn and closed in. In mid-stretch, Golden Ticket looked like a winner. Later, he still looked like a winner. Later still, he really looked like a winner. Then, improbably, Alpha closed the gap – slowly at first, then steadily, relentlessly – pushed by Fast Falcon. Live, it looked like Golden Ticket won. On replay, at full speed, Alpha maybe. In slow motion, Golden Ticket, no wait, Alpha. People leaned, guessed, yelled, said things like “Inside gets the bob” and “Angle favors the outside.” I watched with owner Jim Riccio (of Willy Beamin fame) who went from being the big story of the day to just another winner. For the record, Riccio called dead heat before anyone else.

Performance of the Meet (human): Ramon Dominguez won six races in a day early and six races in a day late. In between, he won singles, doubles, triples, quadruples, stakes, maidens, claimers, everything but a steeplechase (and he says that may be coming one of these days). The jockey set a new record for victories in a single Saratoga meet with 68, three more than the old mark set by John Velazquez. More importantly, Dominguez did it with class and for trainers big-time and small-fry. One of the most fun guys to cover in the game.

Performance of the Meet (equine): Questing in the Alabama. Simply brilliant.

Improbable Number of the Meet 1: $78.60. That’s how much money you would have if you bet $2 to win on all 162 starters ridden by apprentice Wilmer Garcia. His 11 winners paid a combined $402.60 – as little as $8.80 (Screenplay) and as much as $74.50 (A New York Phillie). Seems impossible, but we did the math after doing a feature on the kid early. Here’s to more winners at Belmont or Parx or wherever Garcia agent Jose Henriquez go in the fall.

Improbable Number of the Meet 2: Godolphin won four Grade 1 races at the meet. Questing (two), Alpha and Emcee. The gang from Greentree might have had a fifth if It’s Tricky didn’t lose all chance in the Personal Ensign when she stumbled leaving the gate. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with the success, but it was refreshing to hear assistant trainer Neal McLaughlin talk about working horses right-handed on the private track at Greentree (because they can).

Improbable Number of the Meet 3: 838. Days between races for Aug. 30 steeplechase winner You The Man. He got off the bench and went to work, banging out an optional claiming win for trainer Todd Wyatt and rewarding his backers with a $31 win payoff.

Double of the Meet 1: Demonstrative. The steeplechaser started twice, ran almost 4 1/2 miles, jumped 17 fences and won both – taking the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes on the first week and adding the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup four weeks later. Steeplechasing’s new start. May he stay bright.

Double of the Meet 2: Willy Beamin. On Aug. 22, he won the Albany against fellow New York-breds. Three days later, he won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop. And all of this happened just five months after Jim Riccio claimed the son of Suave for $25,000.

Double of the Meet 3: Allen Jerkens. The legendary trainer (Hall of Famer doesn’t quite do it) won two races – both stakes – at Saratoga 2012. Emma’s Encore rolled through the stretch to take the Prioress, then Go Unbridled added the Saratoga Dew.

Story of the Meet: Too many to choose with real clarity, but Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s description of preparing To Honor And Serve for the Woodward could be dubbed Training Racehorses 401 (a graduate level course).

Most Popular Feature of the Meet: No contest. The Special’s daily words of wisdom from the The Chief, Allen Jerkens, were at once poignant, popular and riveting. Thanks Chief for the conversations and thanks NYTHA for the push.

Cowboy of the Meet: Trainer Dave Donk got the saddle on Hessonite OK, then she turned into a wild bronco – going up, down and all around in the paddock before the Yaddo. Then she won the race.

Winner’s Circle Photo of the Meet: No doubt here. Ginny Reid (wife of trainer Butch Reid) cheered Poseidon’s Warrior to victory in the Vanderbilt, then sprayed the winner with a hose, then realized she was going to miss the trophy presentation and snuck in the back – captured frame by frame by The Special’s Dave Harmon.

Favorite Cover of the Meet: A four-way tie (sorry). The yearling with his head and hooves in the trees on Aug. 7; the John Velazquez Hall of Fame Day shot from Aug. 10; the Travers finish line shot by Dave Harmon Aug. 26; the last edition of the meet, Sept. 2, where To Honor And Serve stared right through the lens of The Special’s Tod Marks.

Horses of the Year: Saratoga feels like the turning point of a game, a play, a something and this year was no different as people talked championships at the end of major races. Did we see the Horse of the Year 2012 at the Spa? No idea, but there were a few that made you think: Wise Dan, Alpha, To Honor And Serve, Fort Larned . . . we’ll all know more in a few short months.

Rides of the Meet: Dominguez ran away with the jockey crown, and deserves every accolade but nobody rode better than Velazquez. He missed the early days while getting over a shoulder injury, then limited his schedule until he was fully fit. He still turned in signature, definitive rides aboard To Honor And Serve, Wise Dan, Stephanie’s Kitten (a masterpiece), Point Of Entry and so on. Velazquez won 30 races (fourth-best) from 153 mounts (12th highest). And his Hall of Fame speech was a masterpiece too.

Handicapper of the Meet: The Special crowned a new champion as Gaile Fitzgerald (121 winners on top) dethroned John Shapazian (118) in a slugfest that lasted all meet. Both were over 33 percent for the meet as The Special only handicaps 355 races (since we only print one Monday paper). The totals and the percentages rank with any public handicapper in Saratoga. And while we’re handing out cigars, this reporter made one guest appearance on the OTB channel and gave out $13.60 winner Demonstrative in the New York Turf Writers Cup. As always, it pays to pay attention.

This could go on forever. The meet was that good. Again, thanks for reading. See you at the races. If you want some memories, check out the Digital Editions section.