Cup of Coffee: Wandering

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“You’re running a little late this morning…?”

That was my first greeting Thursday morning in Saratoga. It was 6:33.

“You’re just getting to work now…?”

That was my second greeting Thursday morning in Saratoga. It was 6:46.

Let the games begin.

The first was from Susie Bricker walking her dog down Caroline Street, as I fumbled in my car looking for my barn sneakers. I laughed, “I want to ease into it.” She laughed.

The second was from Pat from Boston, as she ponied a filly around the freshly planted trees behind the Annex. Pat’s next question had more substance. “Could you help me for a second?” With that, I had a leather shank and a bay filly in my hand. One hand for a split second, as I heard my dad bellow in my head, “Two hands on that shank, boy.” I quickly reached for the end of the shank with my free hand and made sure the leather was taut from halter to hand.

I walked circles in the grass as the bay filly picked at what will be the best grass all meet, past a saddle on the ground, near a young tree and back to where we started – a horse’s version of crop circles.

“Who do you work for?” Pat asked (I must have looked like I knew what I was doing at the end of the shank).

I paused and thought about it.

“The Saratoga Special, it’s a newspaper.”

Pat looked up and smiled, “Are you a Clancy?”

It made my morning.

Pat settled her pony and I handed her the shank, she smiled, thanked me for the kindness and I turned toward the Annex.

Golf cart on the other side of the main track, I walked for a change. Walking allows time to drift, I saw Kenny McPeek’s stall plaques, the metal pods for storage, the hustle and bustle but drifted back to long-ago jump trainers who used to hang their rub rags and saddle towels from baling twine between trees outside the jump barns. I saw the colors – Burley Cocks’ burgundy with faded gold trim, Mickey Walsh’s yellow and green. I watched Fishback, Skiffington, Aitcheson swing onto lengthy geldings, chinstraps dangling, leather boots sliding into metal stirrups. I heard Mikey Smithwick, “Hey, youngblood, hold this horse in this tub,” as he handed me Hamid so many years ago. I could smell the coffee and taste the coffeecake from Scotty’s stand across the street. I was gone, back 20, 30 – jeesh – 40 years ago.

Then Lisa Lewis smiled from under a tree. “I can’t get away from these jumpers,” she said, as she settled into her new surroundings at the end of what used to be a jump barn. Hell, I can’t either. A moment earlier, I was drifting back to Lillian Phipps’ homebred Hamid, a son of Bagdad and the Bold Ruler mare Khadine, born in 1976.

Lewis and I talked about her horses, laughed at a colt who flared his nostrils, tossed his head, rammed at the webbing on his first morning in Saratoga. “I know how he feels,” I said, again, thinking about being young at the Spa.

Remembering I needed to find Irish import Diamond Fields for a Lake George preview, I said goodbye to Lewis and walked, past Jonathan Sheppard’s shedrow on the far side, the Hall of Famer engineered a set, as he’s been doing long before my Hamid days. Meandering through and in between barns, past Mike Stidham’s black and white sign hanging for the first time in Saratoga, I didn’t see any sign of an Irish filly and gave up the chase.

Across East Avenue, toward the Phipps’ barn, Shug McGaughey stood watch from his usual perch, Christophe Clement’s assistant gave individual instructions to each rider, Florent Geroux and Doug Bredar hustled business from a golf cart, Ron Anderson took a call from Bobby Barbara and Nick Santagata cantered past, bantering, picking up the conversation, mid-sentence, right where he left off from last year.
“Nothing changes,” I said, to no one, as I walked.

“Why would it? That would ruin it,” I heard from someone, somewhere.

I thought about that one as I walked toward the clocker’s stand, then back around to Rusty Arnold’s barn, to Jimmy Jerkens on the rail and back across East Avenue to find that Irish filly, who I had been told was standing behind a yin and yang webbing.

Assistant Craig Allen walked her toward the wash rack behind the barns, picked up a hose and started cooling her off with a cool stream of water that landed on her back as she whirled in a circle. I asked Allen if he wanted me to hold her, he looked at me and shook his head, “She can be a little funny.”

He obviously hadn’t seen my earlier work for Pat from Boston.