SARATOGA SPRINGS There’s peeling back the onion.
Then there’s hacking it in two with a razor-sharp cleaver and dumping the raw halves in boiling stew water.
Owner Mike Moreno of Southern Equine Stables promises that if you take the time to wash off the dirt, then tug and pick your way through the tough, pungent layers of his trainer, Eric Guillot, it’s possible to get to the center of something sweet.
That was exposed in a way that only horse racing can provide on Saturday.
Not long after watching one of their promising 2-year-old colts collapse and die on the track, Moreno and Guillot were wrenched back into a glorious place when their eponymous 4-year-old gelding Moreno ran away with the 87th Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course.
It’s easy to characterize the bombastic Guillot as a clown or a buffoon, a hyperbolic Cajun motormouth with an array of catchprases, jokes and bayou wisdom as vast as Lake Pontchartrain.
This is the same guy who introduced an electric buzzer controversy to the aftermath of the Travers last year, the Travers that Moreno lost by a head bob.
This is the Falstaff who shows up for the Whitney draw in plaid bermudas, sneakers and a T-shirt with “I GOT HATERS EVERY WHERE” printed in 7,200-point type on the front.
On Saturday, we got to see all that blown up to cartoonish proportion on national TV.
But we also got to see a depth of character and emotion, balanced against the terrible loss in the fifth race, when the colt Sir William Bruce died of an apparent heart attack while Guillot was hosing him down on the track near the winner’s circle.
Less than three hours later, they were putting a blanket of pink roses over the back of Moreno as jockey Junior Alvarado paraded him near the winner’s circle.
“I was so disappointed and mostly crying when I lost my colt in the fifth,” Guillot said. “He was a very nice colt. I just couldn’t understand what would change to … Boy, you talk about highs and lows in this game, huh? Woo. All in one day. In two hours, matter of fact.”
Sir William Bruce wasn’t just another 2-year-old to Guillot and Mike Moreno.
They bred him in California, raised him and saw enough talent and potential to start his racing career at Saratoga. He was full brother to another horse Guillot trained.
Despite finishing fifth, he didn’t show anyting to dispel the opinion of the trainer and owner.
Then he was dead.
“I thought he had a little heat exhaustion. I started hosing him, he took a couple wobbly steps, he stood for awhile and then he had a heart attack, I guess,” Guillot said.
Guillot spent the two hours leading up to the Whitney wandering around and gathering himself for what would be the biggest win of his career.
“I tried to go by myself a little bit, walk around,” Guillot said. “There’s been some great people that consoled me, and they’re just trying to help and do the right thing. There’s been a few that wanted to know if he was all right, even after he was put down.
“So it’s kind of rough. I don’t want to explain the story over and over again for two hours. I called my help, and I told them to focus on Moreno. We’ll worry about the other tomorrow. And here we are.”
It wasn’t any easier on Mike Moreno.
“I’ll tell you, it’s been an emotional day,” he said. “These horses, especially when you breed them and raise them, they become part of your family. It was very emotional to lose him, so … it was tough,” Moreno said, choking and tearing up.
The excruciating bisection of good and bad fortune did not escape the jockey, Junior Alvarado, either.
Not only was he on both Sir William Bruce and Moreno on Saturday, but he was the regular rider of the 3-year-old filly Lavender Road who was euthanized on Thursday after the horrific incident near the clubhouse on Wednesday.
“He [Sir William Bruce] rode a great race, coming back, he’s coming back pretty fine,” Alvarado said. “Take the saddle off … all of a sudden, I see the horse go down. It’s unbelievable.”
Guillot didn’t make any friends last year when he accused jockey Luis Saez of using an illegal electric buzzer to spur Will Take Charge to the head-bob win over Moreno in the Travers.
An investigation turned up no wrongdoing, and Guillot apologized to Will Take Charge’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, on the live internet feed of the Breeders’ Cup draw. He and Lukas were shaking hands and slapping backs like old pals at the Whitney draw.
Guillot said he had no regrets about the controversy and would’ve done it the same way all over again.
He and Mike Moreno “have been having bad luck in business the last couple years,” but the Whitney could get the pendulum swinging in the other direction.”
“God made the windshield very big for a reason, and the rearview mirror very small for another reason,” he said on Wednesday. “People look at the glass half full or half empty … I look at it overflowing at all times.”
“I’m all about the horses and fun, and the rest of the industry, I just kind of go along with it because I’m in it,” he said on Saturday.
“I do take my horses serious.”