Cup of Coffee: Memories

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Friday morning, John Williams pointed to an old oak tree, the one he stood under as Sensitive Prince stretched Affirmed in the Jim Dandy, the Triple Crown winner finally reeling in Allen Jerkens’ speedster, they were 20 clear of the third horse. Laz Barrera called it his greatest performance. Williams, on a visit to Saratoga, wistfully recalled that moment, the shade of that tree within a screen pass of where he stood. You could see the race unfolding in his eyes. Old trees, old memories.

As Williams paused, Todd Pletcher pointed to the quarter pole, to where he stopped as a Wayne Lukas horse cooled out in the test barn, to watch Housebuster win the King’s Bishop. Craig Perret looked left, looked right and saw nothing. The champion sprinter inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, using the ultimate of weapon of speed. Pletcher, still awed, 23 years later.

Later Friday afternoon, my brother Joe thought of the grandstand apron, near the chicken stand or where the chicken stand used to be, and remembered the day Chris Evert, Holding Pattern and Little Current clashed in the Travers. The filly went to the lead, Holding Pattern stalked, Little Current fell out the back like he couldn’t see. He probably couldn’t, the horses plowed through the slop, like submarines emerging at the surface, a wake next to and behind them. Holding Pattern won it, a thief in the night. Joe was 9 years old, he still feels the rain.

Each time I listened and quietly pictured the racecourse…the fire escape, the paddock chute, the head of the stretch, the third floor, the box seats, the barns, the jocks’ room. Races and horses, friends and foes, moments and minutes flash past.

I picture the far turn, where I watched Forego, the great Forego, lose in the slop, the seeds of this crazy game burrowing deep. Dad hailing the great gelding as a legend and then the legend never getting untracked. He came past, well back, buried in slop, I still think he’s going to sprout wings, just as Dad promised. I can see Shoemaker’s yellow and black silhouette, that’s all I remember. It even says in his chart, ‘Disliked going.’ I learned early, that even the greats get beat. Dad took it the worst.

I peer through the clubhouse, into the darkness, where the roof rattled as Rachel Alexandra stretched and Macho Again lunged in the Woodward. I’ve never felt the place so packed, never heard it so loud.

I see the winner’s circle where we stood after Birdstone won the Travers in the dark, I can still feel the rain of that one.

I see the spot in the clubhouse where Todd Wyatt came storming out of the purgatory only a trainer can feel when You The Man won a claimer.

I scan to the spot at the end of the grandstand, wedged into the corner of the chain-link fence, with a Ricoh KR-5 camera, manual focus, manual shutter, twisting and maneuvering it as Personal Ensign took dead aim on Gulch in the Whitney. There were only three horses, the gallant claimer King’s Swan outgunned. Personal Ensign’s poise and grace so apparent as she bore down to win her 10th in a row, her first and only try against the boys. I still have the photos, somewhere in a box.

I glance to the paddock chute where I watched the Prioress last summer, a few silent feet behind the Chief, I feel the slap on my hand as he high-fived me from the heavens.

I see the eighth pole of the inner turf and think of Hokan in the Turf Writers. That’s selfish, but satisfying.

I see the spot on the turf where Town And Country tripped over Mystan and Dad shot off on his pony as I stood on the fire escape at the end of the grandstand, fighting tears and hearing Dad’s voice, “Son, if the horse gets beat, you just can’t cry about it.”

I feel the turf where my ankle spun and snapped, my riding career over.

I see upended chairs, the crumpled programs, the disheveled sport coats after Fourstardave stumbled, recovered, rallied and then got disqualified in the West Point. I can see still see Keith O’Brien’s fears and Leona O’Brien’s tears.

Just a few, just a few of those moments that make a Saratoga summer. Take a break and look around, feel the ghosts, remember the horses. If you see me, tell me the story about the one you’ll never forget, the one that changed you. This place is built on memories, both personal and public, all indelibly engrained whether you’re Pletcher, Williams or Clancy. There are 15 days of racing still to go this summer, make your memories.

Watch Affirmed nail Sensitive Prince here.

Watch Holding Pattern win the Travers here.