SARATOGA SPRINGS I was standing on the shoulders of giants — by running in their hoofsteps.
Well, you define “running” your way, I’ll define it mine.
If you’ve spent any amount of time at Saratoga Race Course over the years, it’s likely that the treasure chest of your memories is spilling over with sparkling jewels and intricately crafted gold pieces.
For me, time will never dull the images of Rachel Alexandra desperately holding off Macho Again, Questing shying from the stick through the stretch or Alpha and Golden Ticket nose-to-nose at the wire in the Travers dead heat on Saturday.
On Sunday, It’s Tricky pitched forward out of the gate nose-first into the dirt, half-stumbled a second time, hopelessly out of contention in the Personal Ensign, and … got … up.
She ran a winning race from there; she didn’t win, but who will ever forget?
Ever wonder what it’s like to run on the main track at Saratoga, where these races occurred?
Ever wonder what it’s like to cover the same path on which Secretariat lost the 1973 Whitney to Onion. Where Man o’ War won four races in 1919 as a 2-year-old, two of those races named after grand, gorgeous Saratoga Springs hotels that don’t exist anymore? Where Kentucky won the first Travers in 1864 (think about it — 1864)?
It doesn’t border on bombast or blasphemy to say that this dirt is holy ground to racing fans.
Ever wondered? I have.
So I tried it.
On Tuesday, I ran a mile and a quarter on Saratoga’s mile-and-an-eighth main track, re-creating the distance used for the Travers and the Alabama, which Questing won in a romp 11 days ago.
It seemed like a fun idea when I thought of it last week.
That was last week.
Not so easy
Here’s all of the background you need: On July 19, I was on the verge of getting into decent shape; on July 20, Saratoga opened for the 144th time. By Tuesday, I wasn’t on the verge of anything, except maybe a psychiatric exam.
Understand, having researched the history of Travers dead heats to find that Attila and Acrobat tied after a mile and three-quarters, then had a runoff at the same distance to decide a champion, that I had considered running a mile and three-quarters, then slow-jogging off another mile and three-quarters.
That derisive laughter you hear in the background is my lungs and legs doubled over at the notion of such a wild delusion; my heart doesn’t see what’s so funny.
Another entity with a rich sense of humor: whoever’s got a thumb on the meteorological spigot in Saratoga.
If somebody had wanted to restage Birdstone’s 2004 Travers, they had only about an eight-hour window from Monday night to 6 a.m. on Tuesday, when it rained and rained — and rained.
As a turf writer, I’ve walked tracks many times, even muddy ones, like Churchill Downs last year at the Breeders’ Cup while interviewing trainer Chad Brown as we walked behind his beaten favorite, Stacelita, back to the barn.
This was different, a grand tour of my favorite place on earth, but also a supposedly athletic endeavor to gain whatever insight and enlightenment was out there on that indecipherable brown expanse of dirt, which seems so uncomplicated and yet so mysterious at the same time.
Well, there was nothing mysterious about my run.
It was, simply, a grind.
I knew I was in trouble when the first pass of tractors conditioning the track dragged the sealing plates over hoofprints left from training hours, and up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude, so to speak.
Even for an unfit racehorse like me, a mile and a quarter is kid stuff.
But before I even got to the first turn, I was moving like a tremulous machine.
The Equibase long comment will read: “Broke a step slow, saved ground all the way around the track with a rail-hugging trip, plodded along in the off going, was one-paced and never threatened before finding best stride in the final 2 yards.”
More delusion: Pre-run, I imagined myself passing landmarks and thinking, “OK, this is where Affirmed cut off Alydar. And this is where Easy Goer cocked his head in the direction of the grandstand.”
For one thing, I had to keep my eye on the ground, which welcomed each footfall with the loving embrace of 2 inches of New England clam chowder and only reluctantly broke that embrace. Each shoe was freighted with evidence of this messy, clingy relationship.
Then there were the poles.
The distance markers and I weren’t on the same schedule.
When I was looking for the quarter pole, the five-sixteenths slowly came into view.
That eighth pole that should’ve gone whizzing by looked a lot like the three-sixteenths pole.
The finish line? Forget it. I didn’t think it was ever going to show up.
But it did, much to my relief. It’s not going anywhere.
Always too short
Gazette colleague David Lombardo clocked me in at 11:00.08, and as these things go, I was peeved that I didn’t crack 11, even though I just wanted to be under 15, not sure how much of a handicap that that mud would create.
A few Gazeteers had some action on this old New York-bred, and “In your face” is pretty much all I have to say to them. Oh, and I guess you won’t be needing that IRS window, either, smart guys.
I don’t think I’m wallowing in the mire of sentimentality by admitting that this is the time of the meet when the Saratoga melancholy starts to set in.
Many of us go through the same cycle every year.
There’s so much happening every day that you get entrenched in the moment, then suddenly the wire you were desperately looking for is too close for comfort.
This year, it has an even more dramatic and anxious effect because Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s people are going to take over the NYRA board for the next three years, a development that has loomed over this meet and cast uncertainty on racing in New York since opening day.
But there’s something about Saratoga that makes you want to believe that even a bunch of politicos can’t screw it up.
In the homestretch, I did, in fact, force my head up from the mud just long enough to glimpse the elegant sweep of the spires.
The ground never felt so solid.