Hello Belmont, Goodbye Joe

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Just walked in the door after a weekend home, for a nephew’s high-school graduation party. Nothing like the perspective of a high-school graduation. Rocco and Jack off to college. Boys, now men. Oh, to have another chance.

Now walking out the door. Belmont Park calls, looms, beckons…promises. There are no promises. California Chrome goes for the Triple Crown, the elusive Triple Crown, 36 years in waiting. After the Derby, someone asked me about his Triple Crown chances. I offhandedly said, “He’ll win the Preakness, that’s a slam dunk. The Belmont…that will be the hard one.” We are racing fans, we are believers, we will believe again. Demons and demigods stand in his way.

Eagle Poise entered for the inaugural running of the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational. Two miles on the turf. Time is against us, he’s 8 now, worrying he’s lost a step. Toss the Elkhorn because of good ground and go back to his races last year when he was second in the Valedictory, Laurel Turf Cup and Sycamore and he’s a factor. Of course, he probably would have won all three when he was 4 or 5. We all lose a step. I began checking the forecast two weeks ago – dry, dry, dry. Then chances of rain, 20 %, 20 %, 20 %…then 100 % for Thursday. That won’t help. Eagle Poise needs it firm. I’m fretting. Life as an owner, trainer, jockey, groom, bettor, fan in a game of variables and variations.

Stories are written – for today – which always helps the road trip. Just finished a column/feature on Joe Aitcheson Jr. for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. I put off writing anything about Joe here knowing I was writing about him there. Writing once is tough enough, writing twice ruins the craft. The Internet has not made any of us better writers. It was hard to keep the “I” out of the column, which I did until the end, finally admitting it and using a letter he sent me in 1998, changing my life. A hero to us all, Aitcheson died on the morning of the Fair Hill Races. Poetically, on race day, on Memorial Day Weekend. He was the epitome of a veteran – three, four, five bruising stints as a jump jockey and two with the Navy, fighting in the Korean War.

My great friend Tim Keefe texted me to tell me Joe was gone last Saturday, Fair Hill morning. As I walked around Fair Hill Race Course, I remembered Joe angling the last fence down the back (the one they took out because the art was lost), clipping the inside hedge with his left toe. I envisioned Tuscalee saving ground and winning another hunt meet stakes. I remembered Joe falling from a horse named Cultivating, sopping up blood with a dirty saddle towel under the awning of the jocks’ room, hiding and hoping to ride the next. I could see his strung-together shoulder pads, his leather boots, the blue birds, his quiet determination and the natural respect that determination earned. The toughest of the tough. The greatest of the greats.

Belmont Park calls, looms, beckons…promises. Joe won races there too. So many years ago.