There is no walk like it in sports. Two thick red lines mark the path, as it burrows through bettors and drinkers under the clubhouse, descends a few feet, past the hand stampers and around the bend, past the red railing where the gate crew hangs, then slices diagonally right, past the bands and the dancers, between the food stands, through the charbroiled burger smell, then juts back to the left past the administrative offices, through the jocks’ agents and wives waiting for celebration or commiseration, then a hard right into the sanctuary of the Saratoga jocks’ room.
Jockeys, valets and security guards make the walk from the scales to the room, nine, 10, 11 times a day. Trainers join the jockeys for part of it, sometimes the whole thing if they’re mad or confused. Fans, from old to young, dot the walk, thrusting programs, asking for goggles, high-fives or ever so rarely a negative critique – I still remember the gambler who threw a handful of rolled up tickets at me in the early 1990s, “Cash these for me Clancy,” after I got beat on a Sheppard favorite.
The walk is where many of us became fans of this crazy sport. I remember Cash Asmussen teaching me manners when he said, “How about a please and a thank you?” after I thrust a program in his face. Then he scrawled his name across the program, slashing dollar signs for the S in Cash. I was impressed.
The walk is always good, at least, for the winner.
For Mike Smith, twice this summer, it was iconic. The Hall of Famer made his career in New York but now resides in California. When he comes here, wins the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama on the undefeated Songbird, well, the walk becomes part victory lap, part family reunion.
After the CCA Oaks, it went like this…
Mikey. Mikey. Mikey. Thanks for coming. Come back to the East Coast. Zenyatta or Songbird at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, who’s better, Mikey? Who’s better? Mikey, can I get a picture of you and my son? I don’t know how you do it, Mike. Holy Bull. Holy Bull. Holy Bull. Think you can take Beholder…? You’re the best, Mikey. Can I take a picture with you? Thank you so much. You sticking around, Mikey? Sign it to Andrew…to Andrew. I’ve got to go, guys, I’m sorry, I’ve got to catch a plane. Clear the path. Clear the path. Clear the path. Goggles, Mike, one pair of goggles. Awesome, Mike. Awesome. You got a camera. Hurry up. Hurry up. Make it work. Make it work…
In between and among the celebration, Smith hugged Gary Sciacca, accepted congratulations from John Velazquez, Kendrick Carmouche and jockeys who look young enough to be Smith’s kids. By the time Smith got to the jocks’ room, he had posed for photos with a kid in a stroller and a woman in her 80s. One long black Sharpie mark had flicked across Fox Hill Farm’s silks, Smith laughed, “That looks kind of like my signature.”
A month later, Smith returned to win the Alabama. The walk was longer, better.
Mike. Mike. Mike. Thanks, Mike. Ain’t that something. What are you wearing Florent Geroux’s helmet for? Ain’t that something. You need a better pen. Let’s go, real quick. Look up. Look up. Look up. Can you sign this, thank you so much. For Chile. For Chile. Whewwww. Selfie. Selfie. Selfie. I gotta go. I gotta go. I gotta go. Can I have your goggles? Goggles, Mikey. Selfie! Mike, you’re still the greatest. Hey, Mike, you going to Sperry’s tonight? Thank you, Dad. Please, brother, please. Right here, Mike. Right here. Thank you, Mike. Take it, take the picture. You know, it was really good, we were running, brother. Great trip, Mike. Outside the red lines, please. You’re the best, Mike. You’re the best. Hey, Smitty. You’re the man. Songbird. Songbird. Smitty, buy yourself a helmet. I got one, don’t I? For this little girl, this little girl here. Thank you, Mike. Take the picture. Take the picture. Mikey. Mike. Smitty. Great ride. You are my hero. The champion. I love you man…
A longer, sweeter walk, Smith reached the jocks’ room after 10 minutes and 11 seconds, finishing with a Sharpie, from a fan who had happily traded a pen for a signature. Smith had signed enough red Songbird posters to wallpaper the Reading Room, signed a $2 win ticket, written his phone number on a press pass, taught a woman how to use an iPhone camera. Smith hugged Leo and Joan O’Brien, Selma, Wendy, Tony Allevato and his son. By the end of the walk, a woman waited for one perfect picture, as Smith walked into the frame, her phone rang, Chelsey flashed on her screen. The woman slammed her thumb down like she was playing Whac A Mole. Smith slowed, waited and she snapped her photo, shrieking while she did it. Smith smiled, a walk complete.