A little piece of heaven
Man, this place just delivers.
Time and again.
Wise Dan went to greener pastures, Eddie Stanco went to heaven and Frankie Dettori went to Disney World by way of Istanbul and England.
That beer Eddie bought me quickly became a dead soldier and went to Elysian Fields. Burp.
And they were all the same place.
Saratoga Race Course couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular opening day on Friday, and couldn’t have reciprocated with a more spectacular, almost surreal, kaleidoscope of images and stories.
My day started in the morning at barn 26 on the backstretch, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan’s home away from home, and ended on the roof of the clubhouse to watch Dettori perform his famous flying dismount. If he had jumped past me and through the sky, I might’ve believed it.
Bridging the morning to evening was an intermezzo with Stanco and his family, who didn’t come to see any horses, but twin stone jockey statues painted pretty in purple and light blue, each holding signs lettered in the name of a princess.
If there was anyone more eager for the 146th opening day than the 1967 Linton High School graduate, who owns the star filly Princess of Sylmar, I’d like to meet that person.
“I’m in a dream,” he said, admiring the Coaching Club American Oaks statue at the entrance to the paddock bar, after a visit to the Alabama statue in the ring outside the clubhouse entrance.
Trainer Charlie LoPresti was in his own reverie.
He gave Wise Dan a four-furlong work on the lush Oklahoma training track turf course, which meant a small parade following the chestnut out to the track and back.
I was in that parade and needed a bath more than he did after he snapped off a 49.12 under Damien Rock like it was nothing, eight weeks removed from colic surgery.
“I want everybody to see him, see how he worked today, a horse of that caliber . . . a horse doesn’t go through what he’s gone through and come back and look like that,” LoPresti said.
Dettori, the flamboyant, effervescent Italian jockey who has won the biggest races on the planet but had never been to Saratoga, not once, hustled his way into town to ride for Wesley Ward and knock one off the bucket list.
He rode in Turkey on Wednesday, rode in England on Thursday, slept at the airport and got into New York only to find that his luggage was lost.
Using Rajiv Maragh’s pants, Joe Rocco’s boots and Julien Leparoux’s whip, Dettori won on Aventure Love in the eighth and returned to the winner’s enclosure to chants of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” He jumped. The crowd of 25,612 ate it up.
The airport screws up, so just for laughs, of course, Dettori won on Jet Majesty in the last race on the card, too.
“I felt like a kid again,” he said. “When I rode, I thought I was in Disney World, there were so many people. I thought maybe I got the wrong venue.”
To remind us that nothing is perfect — and speaking of Disney World — the New York Racing Association pulled a Mickey Mouse move by jerking around our friends at the Saratoga Special, the free newspaper published by the Clancy brothers, Sean and Joe, that is chockful of advances, race recaps and photos every day.
The Clancys were told on Thursday that they could no longer distribute their paper on the grounds, for nebulous and ever-shifting reasons.
If you can find someone who has a bad word to say about the Clancys, their newspaper or the professionalism of their staff, I’d like to meet that person. Well, not really.
I don’t even care what reason NYRA may have had for this lame move, it just comes across as craven bullying. The fact that NYRA compromised and let the Special set up three stands at the backstretch breakfast kitchen and inside the two main entrances makes the initial prohibition ring all the more hollow.
Anyway, Wise Dan was awesome.
Colic, what colic? By the time they got him belly up on the operating table, his plumbing had self-corrected.
“Then the only thing we were dealing with was an incision to heal,” LoPresti said. “He’s such a strong horse, in 21⁄2 weeks, he was dragging me around when I was grazing him and stuff. He’s just an amazing horse.”
This is the guy who won the Fourstardave the last two years as part of his Horse of the Year campaigns, and LoPresti calls it a better than 75 percent chance that he’ll run here again, maybe even the Fourstardave a mere three weeks from now, or the Bernard Baruch later.
“Somebody get a license plate?” an exercise rider said as he passed Rock on Wise Dan’s way back to the barn after the effortless breeze.
“Felt like he could go around again out there,” Rock said.
“You can’t imagine the cards and letters that came to my house addressed to Wise Dan. Not to me, to him,” LoPresti said.
Owner, trainer, jockey . . . horse.
Ed Stanco fell in love with Saratoga as a Schenectady kid.
When Princess of Sylmar got good, then really good, then great, he started entertaining visions of the commemorative jockey statues painted in the colors of his King of Prussia silks.
He was just starting a family in the 1970’s when they’d come to the track and grab a picnic table.
“We came here when we couldn’t rub two dimes together, we couldn’t pay to get into the clubhouse,” his wife, Ina, said. “I remember nursing my son in the backyard.”
“I’ll bet I could get one of these out of here,” Eddie said, eyeballing the CCA Oaks statue. Man, that no-breakfast-or-lunch beer was cold.
“It’s very warm — the people make the atmosphere,” Frankie said. “There’s a lot of warmth here.”
“He’s a smart horse,” Charlie said. “As soon as he got off the van and started looking out that window where he always stays, he knew.”
Wise Dan was done with his bath, his flawless chestnut coat gleaming in the sun. LoPresti said you can’t even really see the two-foot surgical scar anymore.
A big fly swooped over Wise Dan’s back, thought otherwise, and flew off.