When it really matters

- -

Every year, without fail, there is some spectacular material that never makes it to the pages of The Saratoga Special.

The reasons are many – time constraints, context, irrelevance or just a simple accident – for the omissions and they always come with a little bit of regret. The material ranges from exhaustive streams of consciousness, interesting tidbits, short and long facts about the personalities of horses and horse people or just some one-sentence sound bytes or quotes.

The good thing is they can be saved up and stored, transcribed from a voice recorder to a notes document on Google Drive or scribbled on a notepad socked away in a desk for the offseason. Any writer worth his salt knows there might come a time to use it, to enhance an otherwise dull story or just something to add to a timely and relevant narrative.

The best stuff comes from the scores and scores of conversations with trainers, owners, jockeys, their families and friends, racing fans, industry folks and others during the dizzying Saratoga season. The best of the best is the stuff that sticks out in your mind, even nearly three weeks removed from Saratoga’s last live race and after painting your house and fulfilling a promise made to your wife a year earlier.

Two conversations stand out in my mind from the summer of 2015 in Saratoga and they happened in just about a week’s time.

The first was in late July, meeting trainer Michael Tomlinson for the first time. I’d met his assistant, Billy Lawson, a day earlier as he grazed Amsterdam Stakes hopeful Barbados on a small patch of grass behind Barn 14 on the backstretch of the main track.

Tomlinson was familiar, or at least his name was from time spent in Kentucky.

Aside from being the trainer of Barbados, who won the Grade 3 Hutcheson earlier in the year at Gulfstream, Tomlinson conditioned 2003 Arkansas Derby winner Sir Cherokee.

Sir Cherokee was scratched the day before the 2003 Kentucky Derby with a small fracture in one of his ankles. A teary Tomlinson delivered the news to the press corps at Churchill Downs. The Derby was my assignment that year, but I always retreated back to Lexington for a day (Kentucky Oaks Day) to recharge for Saturday’s big day of racing and subsequent magazine production Sunday and Monday, so I missed the press conference.

A dozen years later and after watching Barbados train with Lawson, Tomlinson and his wife Vicki, I wondered if the conversation would ever come around to Sir Cherokee.

Vicki brought it up first, after talking about their Oklahoma roots.

“He had a horse in 2003 that won the Arkansas Derby named Sir Cherokee,” Tomlinson said as her husband held Barbados while Lawson give the Speightstown colt a bath. “Friday morning he got hurt and we had to scratch.

“Our owner had two charter busses and something like 60 people coming. Terry Thompson, he was an Oaklawn rider and it was his first time to run in the Derby, was our rider. Mike called him and Terry started bawling like a baby. Then Mike started crying. At the press conference his little lower lip was quivering and stuff. It took him three years to get over that. I’ll never forget, he just couldn’t watch it from the front side. He went back to the kitchen and watched it from there.”

A few minutes later, after Barbados was put up for the morning, Tomlinson returned.

The conversation shifted back to Barbados, his chances in the Amsterdam (where he would finish third), how he came to train the colt for Paul Hanifl’s Suzanne Stables, other horses he’s trained, and, yes, Sir Cherokee.

At first it was how Barbados compared to Sir Cherokee, which wasn’t asked about but perhaps something Tomlinson thought a racing writer might want to know.

“Sir Cherokee was very vulnerable to the pace. This horse has tactical speed,” Tomlinson said.

Feeling comfortable with the couple, I asked Tomlinson to put into words what it meant to see Sir Cherokee get injured before the Derby, to come so close to the big stage but not allowed to perform because of circumstances out of his control. The pain still there, but the sting long gone, Tomlinson talked about the disappointment and another setback piled on.

“That horse was a lot of fun and it was a real big disappointment that we didn’t get to run in the Derby,” he said. “Every trainer my size dreams of that day. To get the rug jerked out from us at the last moment was pretty traumatizing. It took me a few years to get over it. I’ll be perfectly honest, it took the wind out of my sails.

“And it wasn’t only him, I had a filly that a gentleman and I were partners on that was 5-2 in the grass stakes (Distaff Turf Mile) on Derby Day. The assistant starter grabbed her ear and she threw a little fit in the gate when he grabbed her ear. Being on the national stage like that they ended up scratching her. Love Talkin. You can look it up. We took her after that, stood her in the gate, brought her back the next week and she ran the highest Beyer and the lowest Ragozin number of any filly that year, including Azeri. She ran a 113 Beyer and that was going 6 furlongs on the dirt. She could run on either surface. She was an unsound filly but she was freaky talented. She went 8 flat at Churchill.”

Tomlinson confirmed his wife’s story about leaving the frontside after Love Talkin was scratched. He also said something that probably stood out the most, something that pretty much summarizes why we’re all in this great game.

“After all that with Love Talkin, I went to the track backside kitchen and just sat down. Put my head in my hands. I was just numb,” he said. “We all have bumps in the road we have to overcome. We’re still in the game and we’re still in there taking pitches. Hopefully we’ll hit that home run one day.”

The second standout conversation came about a week later, in the days leading up to a sensational Whitney Invitational.

Again the source was a hands-on horseman, albeit one that’s a bit better known.

Larry Jones, who was in and out of Barn 26 on the Saratoga backstretch with horses for Grade 1 stakes several times during the meet, was in on a steamy morning two days before the Whitney. Jones was running Normandy Invasion in the Whitney, the clear outsider in the field that also featured the likes of Honor Code, Tonalist, Liam’s Map, Noble Bird, Lea, Wicked Strong, V. E. Day and Moreno.

Jones has trained a Horse of the Year in Havre De Grace. He’s trained two winners of the Kentucky Oaks in Proud Spell and Lovely Maria. And he trained Grade 1 winner-turned-standout sire Hard Spun, among others, during his career.

Despite his success, Jones isn’t one to forget his roots. He also isn’t one to forget lessons learned, namely one he got watching Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.

“As Mr. Lukas would say, you run them where they’re good,” Jones said, talking about running Lovely Maria back in the Alabama Stakes later in the meet off a bad race in the Delaware Oaks.

Jones could have also been talking about Normandy Invasion, who was also doing well coming into the Whitney but would need plenty of luck to even get a piece. Jones wasn’t intimidated going into such a strong field as the Whitney. He’d been there before, many times, and talked about the first time, when he really felt a little overwhelmed.

“I had Island Sand, she’d won the Acorn, and I guess it was the Mother Goose,” Jones said. “Lukas, he had that dang silver filly. She was a white filly, the longest shot on the board. Stellar Jayne.

“That was the first time I’d ever saddled with the trainers I was in with. It was a six-horse race. I’m saddling with The Chief, Allen Jerkens. I’ve got Lukas there. Shug McGaughey, it’s the year he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame. Todd Pletcher. People tell me he’s going to make the Hall of Fame. And Bobby Frankel. Everybody a Hall of Fame trainer except Larry Jones. Nobody has a clue who I am.

“It’s one of the first times I’ve been to New York. I say, ‘do I even saddle with them or do I go over in the back and saddle somewhere else?’ They said, ‘no just get out there and act just like them.’ I said, ‘oh boy.’ Well anyway, Lukas had the longest shot on the board with Robby Albarado aboard and she won it. I’ll never forget it. To have five Hall of Fame trainers in there … and me.

“That was an honor that day. I felt, not that I’m great, but just to be saddling with those guys, to be there, everybody tightening the girth at the same time, I was honored.”

 Needless to say, it was an honor to be Jones, Tomlinson and so many others during the 2015 Saratoga meet.