Cup of Coffee: Replays

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Of all the mornings on the backside of Saratoga, it might be my favorite. It was pouring, only the diehards had come out, huddled and hovered under the awning of the Morning Line Kitchen on Travers morning. All of us should have gone home, but somehow stayed, wasting and preserving time all at the same time. 

Out of nowhere, the TVs above our heads crackled to life and Travers re-runs started playing, no announcement, no introduction, they just came on like the Travers’ Gods thought we could use some levity. 

Jaipur and Ridan, Arts And Letters, Honest Pleasure…they played continuously for hours as we drank coffee and watched, people pointing themselves out on the backside of Affirmed and Alydar in 1978, Angel Cordero telling us about the jock he shut off going into the first turn of another year and all of us doing our imitations of Marshall Cassidy’s accent-every-syllable style. Phil Gleaves rode past on his pony, “What year they on?” About 30 of us yelled, “Buckpasser, ’66.” Gleaves smiled, “I’ll be back in 20 years.” And sure enough, 20 replays later, there was Gleaves’ big horse, Wise Times, splashing through the mud to win the Travers. 

If they’re playing Travers reruns Saturday morning, we’ll see you at the Morning Line. If not, these are ours from the first 15 years of The Special. 

Roll tape.

In 2001, Gary Stevens and I sat on a picnic table and talked about Point Given Friday afternoon. The Special was in its infancy, I felt like maybe we’d make it if a guy like Gary Stevens would take the time to talk to us. The next day, Point Given obliged. A week later, he was retired, another shooting star.

Medaglia d’Oro won our second Travers. I stopped Bobby Frankel at his car door the morning before the race, I had just started to stick it out with Frankel, knowing his gruffness was mostly – mostly – a front. He looked at me in the way only Frankel could look at you and asked, well, more like demanded, “What do you want to know?” then told me everything.

Wally Dollase came to town the next summer with Ten Most Wanted. What a man, what a horse. All class, he gave me all the time he had after winning the Travers. I still miss him. 

The next year, Birdstone won and became a reference point. Now, when people see a storm brewing, they say, “Looks like a Birdstone storm.” It was pitch black, the infield fountain blew sideways, the finish line illuminated like a beam of light in a cave. It was epic Saratoga. 

Flower Alley came next, 2005. I hate to say it, but I don’t remember it. Looking at the chart, he beat Bellamy Road, Roman Ruler, Don’t Get Mad, Andromeda’s Hero, Reverberate and Chekhov. Really?

Bernardini dominated in 2006. The best 3-year-old in the country. It wrote itself.

Calvin Borel, Carl Nafzger and Street Sense made the summer in 2007. Relatively new to us, they won the Jim Dandy and held off Grasshopper in the Travers. Brilliant. 

In 2008, I learned the art of betting and the art of writing. Neil Howard had walked me in Mambo In Seattle’s stall earlier in the meet, he bounced his fist off the horse’s back and told me was going to win the Travers. I bet all I had, watched Robby Albarado pump his fist at the wire, then forced my lunch back in my throat as I watched the replay. He lost. That’s when I realized you can’t bet and write. I buried my hatred and wound up at Eoin Harty’s barn with Colonel John. Cool horse. Great race.

Summer Bird won it in 2009. A big, long-striding, two-turn dirt horse. Where have you gone Tim Ice?

Afleet Express dropped a dirty nose on Fly Down in 2010. I went back to the barn with Jimmy Jerkens, watched him scoop feed to his other horses. 

A year later, Stay Thirsty poked his head out of Uncle Mo’s shadow for a moment. A horse of a lifetime for anybody else, he overachieved his way to a Jim Dandy and Travers that year and a Cigar Mile the next. 

In 2012, I walked down the steps between Kiaran McLaughlin and Ken McPeek as the deadheat was posted on the infield toteboard. That was the most fun I ever had writing about the Travers, cobbling together quotes from Dominguez, Cohen, McLaughlin and McPeek. 

Three years ago, Will Take Charge and Moreno offered another classic. D. Wayne Lukas and Eric Guillot finishing a nose apart in the Travers, I guess that’s what I like most about our game – the two-minute mixing bowl of humanity. 

In 2014, I somehow stood between Jimmy and Shirley Jerkens in front of the clubhouse big screen as Wicked Strong opened up and V. E. Day closed. They say still waters run deep, I understood Jimmy Jerkens a little better after that one. 

Last year, I walked with Bob Baffert as American Pharoah left the paddock. I looked at my brother and asked, “Should I stay with him?” Joe uttered one word, “Yes.” We watched the Travers unfold from the glass-enclosed box at the top of the clubhouse stairs. It was brilliant until it wasn’t, I slipped out the back door like I was never there.

As for this year, we’ll have a laugh or a cry but definitely a story.