Harvey Vanier used to say rainy days were for getting his horses fitter than everybody else’s. Every day it rained, you’d see maroon saddle towels whizzing past, splashing through the mud, hooves rattling the base, while other trainers’ horses stayed dry. Now there’s something to be said for keeping horses off bad tracks, but the Travers-winning trainer had a point. There are advantages to rainy days.
Thursday was a rainy day.
In the annals of Saratoga rainstorms – and there have been many – Wednesday’s was one of the best. All it needed was a name, I’m thinking Hurricane Voss, as it happened the day before the late Tom Voss was to be honored with a winner’s circle salute.
Burrowed in a newspaper office late at night, we knew it was raining. How much? We didn’t really know or care. When I got up to leave the office at midnight and a pizza box floated past, well, I knew it was epic, perhaps up there with Holding Pattern, Birdstone and the year they cancelled the races the day after the Travers. Voss would have been proud of his storm. I engineered a levee system to keep (some) water out our basement-level office, elevated power strips, soaked up water with old Specials and left the ark, er office, sometime close to 2 in the morning.
The alarm came early. And, yes, it sounded like Vanier. “Today is the day we get the horses fitter than everybody else’s.”
I tried to hit the snooze button, but it was two days before the Travers, no time to rest.
At 6:30, the parking lot near the test barn looked like a harbor. You could park wherever you wanted, if you could only find high ground to place your feet. Staying dry was out of the question. Horses splashed around the main track, rain pelted the sealed track, the golf cart waited, like a wet dog.
It was dark. And quiet.
With a list of trainers to find – Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Jimmy Jerkens, Leah Gyarmati – there would be little competition. Owners, jockeys, agents, salesmen, writers and general gawkers – were asleep. Actually, there were a few of each – the undaunted Dave Grening and Richard DePass of course – unable to sleep or simply unable to alter a routine.
Tom Bellhouse hovered under the awning of the Morning Line Kitchen. Arriving without the paper – as Ryan, head of distribution had obviously never heard of Vanier – I was greeted with jeers. Moments later, I returned with the paper, knowing full well I was handing them 3,000 words about the New York Turf Writers Cup that would surely be abandoned.
“Who pays him?” Jasmine, from behind the counter, asked Bill Hirsch.
“I wish I knew,” I mumbled, taking another stack of papers from the golf cart. “I wish I knew.”
Mike Hushion arrived and Bellhouse shared hard-luck story #498, missing out on a $9,800 pick 5 when Hushion’s favorite, singled in the final leg, couldn’t get the job done.
We stood under the awning, swapping stories and watching Travers hopeful Bayern make a tour of the main track. At least, it looked like Bayern, through heavy rain, it could have been Hidalgo. It reminded me of the day we watched Travers reruns from the same place.
Tom Law arrived, announcing the New York Turf Writers Cup, scheduled for 12:25 was cancelled (well, postponed until Monday anyway). Quickly, the day seemed easier.
Braving the rain, I made my way past Charlie LoPresti’s barn and found Todd Pletcher. Alone in a golf cart for the first time all meet. He dried off the passenger seat. Ten minutes, 11 seconds later, I knew all I needed to know about Princess Of Sylmar and My Miss Aurelia.
That job was complete.
Making my way to the Oklahoma side, McGaughey stood outside his barn with his son Chip and his boss Dinny braving the rain. No interruptions, I hit record and had 17 minutes of insight on Abaco and Mr. Speaker. Boom.
Minutes later, Wicked Strong jogged past. I counted the days, two days before the Travers…is he blowing out like he did before the Jim Dandy? Then Wicked Strong bowled past the turn, after opening up from the three-sixteenths pole to a sixteenth of a mile past the wire. It felt like just the two of us, enjoying the rain.
Before Wicked Strong had eased to a stop along the backside, Bill Mott walked up and nodded. We stood along the rail halfway around the turn of the Oklahoma and talked about everything from newspapers to stakes horses as Neil Poznansky tested a pair of blinkers on Grade 1 winner Emollient, 24 minutes and 51 seconds later, my job was done. Wet but complete, I headed for my car.
Vanier would have been proud.