It was a sad day here Sunday morning. Bill Hirsch, standing at his corner at the Morning Line Kitchen, told me first.
Phil Serpe flagged me down as his golf cart went east and mine west, behind Rick Violette’s barn. Eddie Dees found my number and called, just wanted to make sure we knew.
Then Leah rode up on her pony, Chief, and stopped at the Kitchen. A day after she won her third Grade 1 stakes of her life, she was down. She looked me in the eye, she didn’t say a word. I looked her in the eye, I didn’t say a word. There was nothing that pain hadn’t already said.
Liz was struggling with her health and perhaps it is best. That’s the only way to look at it. But we worry about you. You have empathized with us, tutored us, taught us and steered us. Now, we feel like we need to do something for you. I guess this is my attempt, when in doubt, I write.
We’ve been wanting you were here all month, but now we’re wishing you were here, just to put an arm around your shoulder, buy a couple of Buds and come back to the barn in the afternoon, talk horses to take your mind off the pain.
We know you have Fernando and your horses, your daughter and your corner at Gulfstream and hope it’s enough. We haven’t heard anything about the service, I’m sure some friends and family from here will go. Consider this letter our attempt at being there.
We didn’t know Liz very well, shared some dinners over the years. Watched her accept some trophies. Listened to her laugh as you told stories about Train Robber, Duck Butter and Mr. Dreyfus.
She once gave my brother your home number in New York and said simply, “Call any time.” It’s still in his phone.
Just know, we feel your pain.
It’s been strange without you two this year. Yesterday, I was asked to sum up Saratoga in 45 seconds. I started typing notes – like dropping an open box of rice – starting with my first Saratoga memory, well it’s a memory conjured from a photograph.
Standing on a bench as Secretariat galloped to the start of the Whitney. I was 3, way down in front of the grandstand, looking through my dad’s binoculars backward.
You were 44, watching from the infield as Onion warmed up like he was let out of jail, about to do the impossible. Funny to think I’ve been coming here since 1973 (or earlier, I still need to check with Mom) and my first memory, my first moment was the day you became a legend.
As a kid, I had heard my dad talk about your exploits, he’s still a little miffed about you beating Kelso, his favorite horse, but he held you in such high regard that I couldn’t have had any other opinion.
As a teenager, I was intimidated by you (must have been those buckets I had heard you kicked at Hialeah) and wish I would have walked over and joined in the football games, like walking past the Louvre and not going in.
Then into my 20s, we talked a few times when I was hacking horses the long way for Leo O’Brien.
Into my 30s, as we started writing The Special, I have gotten to know you, walking back to the barn while you hosed down the horse path and watching you win stakes from the paddock chute.
It broke our hearts when you stopped riding Circus, your pony, but it made it a lot easier to talk, drifting around the backstretch in your golf cart, the conversations – from Eddie Arcaro to National Velvet to Kelly Kip to Preston Burch’s book to riding jumpers – those were my favorite mornings.
The day, we watched Emma’s Encore win the Prioress, walking up the track as you nodded to the crowd and wiped away the tears, that was my favorite afternoon.
Saratoga hasn’t been the same without you this year, Chief. Every morning, someone brings it up. “Sure miss the Chief.” Everybody nods.
But your legacy has never been stronger, Jimmy won the Curlin and the Jim Dandy. Leah won the Test. Mike Hushion has been prolific as ever. Your legacy is here.
Over the years, we’ve probably written more about you, your horses, your family than any other horseman. It’s been an honor.
Godspeed Liz. Stay strong, Chief.