Saratoga, you have a new fan.
The most captivating woman in racing met the most captivating town in racing. It was love at first sight.
Australia’s Gai Waterhouse ventured to Saratoga this week – a high-energy town for a high-energy woman, a stylish town for a stylish woman, a racing town for a racing woman.
Daughter of training legend T.J. Smith, a 34-time champion trainer in Australia, Waterhouse has cut her own path in Australian racing. Her first runner won. Her first runner in a metropolitan race won. Her first runner in a Group 1 stakes won. Her first runner in a jump race won. She’s won over 120 Group 1 races. She was inducted into Australia’s Hall of Fame after just 15 years of training.
Beyond the numbers, Waterhouse oozes charisma, energy, certitude. Meet her and she’s ecstatic for it. Hand her a copy of The Saratoga Special and it’s the best thing she’s ever read. Talk about Saratoga and it’s like she’s discovered Paris on a summer night.
Waterhouse took Saratoga by storm. Well, she took America by storm, meeting Triple Crown winner American Pharoah at Santa Anita on her way to Saratoga.
Waterhouse wakes up at 2:15 most mornings. That’s perfect for a whirlwind tour of Saratoga. She watched horses train from the Whitney Stand. She presented the trophy to Jimmy Toner and his team after Recepta won the Fasig-Tipton De La Rose. She and her team were painted in the paddock, a watercolor of hats and wispy shades of yellow and blue. She was on TV with Steve Byk and Seth Merrow, was interviewed by Richard Migliore in the winner’s circle. She inspected America’s best yearlings, raved about the great muscle, bone, length and scope. She strolled through barns, met trainers, brainstormed with her team and her new friends. She blogged, Instagrammed and Tweeted.
You couldn’t miss her, walking the beat in cowboy boots and hats that matched, laughing, smiling and awed by Saratoga.
“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,” Waterhouse said. “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. 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.”
Waterhouse recognized American racing at its best. She saw what all of us see, felt what all of us feel. Waterhouse regaling me about Saratoga felt like someone telling me how great a child I have. Soulful, like we were sharing headphones.
“The trainers are so hospitable, we’ve been to many yards, went in, talked to them, watched them train, they’ve been wonderfully hospitable and open,” Waterhouse said. “You’re welcomed a lot more here, what we liked when we were at the races at Saratoga, it’s not just security people on the gates, they’re everyday people who live in Saratoga, they’re citizens here, they’re part and parcel to the community, they’re not some sort of robotic type of person who’s been dumped there and paid a wage, they care about the whole community.”
Of course, I didn’t tell Waterhouse about the day-to-day racing dross from around the country, a simulcast signal and a gambler’s fix. I didn’t invite her to any other tracks, didn’t tell her to go racing in September, didn’t mention the tumbleweeds blowing through plenty of our racetracks.
It was a moment to celebrate Saratoga, celebrate the sport that has captivated all of us. She understood, comparing Saratoga to some of the tracks in Australia.
“This track reminds me enormously of Eagle Farm up in Queensland, big, expansive racetrack, lovely old stand, lovely trees around it,” Waterhouse said. “We have great racing in Australia and very publicized in the tabloids, but we don’t have the people component like you have here. We have it on the big days, like Melbourne Cup and over that carnival, but 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.”
And yet again, Saratoga had helped raise all boats.
Waterhouse liked it so much, she might come back with a string of horses next year. Surely, she was feeling some travel gaiety (that was not meant to be a pun). You know, when you’re traveling and you’re feeling light and free – hey, let’s buy a house here, come back every summer – but, it crossed her mind anyway.
“I might, I certainly might. It would be fantastic,” Waterhouse said. “I couldn’t think of anything nicer than being here for a month.”