SARATOGA SPRINGS — Let’s take care of the mea culpa first.
I wrote about the Whistling Man after Tiz the Law won the Travers on Saturday, and as it turns out, it was Whistling Woman.
Apologies to Liza.
I was wondering what my old high school gym teacher was doing in Saratoga, based on the piercing whistle that filled the air over by the Saratoga Race Course clubhouse turn, but it wasn’t him. It was 47-year-old Liza Sheker of Larchmont, a part-time Saratoga Springs resident during racing season with her husband Jim and daughters Ellen, 17, and Margy, 12.
Sheker tweeted — in this case a real one, not a Twitter post — over the phone for me on Wednesday morning.
“That was the ‘C’ version,” she said with a laugh.
On Saturday, she brought her ‘A’ game.
After shooting over 10 minutes of video on her phone that included the race, Tiz the Law’s gallop-out past the wire under jockey Manny Franco and their walk back around the turn to the winner’s circle, Sheker put her phone down so she could “let it rip,” belting out a ferocious celebratory whistle that could be heard all the way to the finish line. I know. That’s where I was standing.
Sheker was one of about 50 fans on the sidewalk outside the fenceline on Nelson Avenue by post time for the Travers, a tantalizingly close viewing spot spoiled by green mesh “privacy screening” to discourage fans, barred from the grounds since opening day.
For the most part, they have stayed away, but this was not only the Travers, but the heavy favorite was Tiz the Law, a New York-bred owned by Sackatoga Stable, whose partners include 10 or so locals.
That group of fans on Nelson, with Sheker leading the charge, symbolized how much people miss watching Saratoga racing in person, especially when one of the biggest stars in the country is running in the biggest race of the meet.
“I swear, the five or 10 seconds it took them to whiz past us, it was still worth it,” Sheker said. “I was so glad I came. It was exhilarating.”
“That was nice, to hear the support from the people on the outside cheering and screaming for me and the horse,” Franco said on Wednesday afternoon. “That made me more happy. I’m never going to forget that.”
Sheker’s day at the races started when her husband dropped her off with her little stepladder at Nelson prior to the ninth race. She was the only one there, although a few porches were occupied and business was booming at the Horseshoe.
By the time Gamine ran away with the Test in the 10th race, Sheker had some company, but most showed up 20-30 minutes before the Travers, the 11th race.
“It was really exciting to hear the call to post,” Sheker said. “That was the first thing that really caught my attention. Just hearing the call to post was the coolest thing. It was like, ‘Oh, wait, real racing. It’s right here.’ I think it was at that exact moment that I was so glad I came.”
The first time the field rounded the clubhouse turn in front of the Nelson Avenue fence people, Tiz the Law was stalking the leaders.
Sheker kept a running commentary for the benefit of those around her, aided by the fact that Tiz the Law has an enormous blaze of white on his forehead and nose.
“I was the only one who could see over the fence, so I was the forward observer, if you will,” she said with a laugh. “You can hear the bell ring when the gates opened. Everyone got off to a good start, you could see that. And you could make out Tiz the Law’s white face quite clearly. When they’re that far away, it’s hard to tell, but I knew he was forwardly placed.
“It was a beautiful thing to see them come around the turn, because you could hear the jockeys talking to each other and their horses, the horses’ hooves and the breathing. That was very, very cool, and the flash of color. They were all stretched out, and Tiz the Law looked just gorgeous going by. A very striking horse.
“Then this lady said, ‘Yay, we saw racing in 2020!'”
After Tiz the Law won, he and Franco came by the fence people again on the gallop-out, and the whoops and cheering caught the jockey’s attention, to which he raised his left fist and pumped it for the fans that he couldn’t really see.
Franco got his colt turned around on the backstretch to trot back to the winner’s circle, and this time he waved at the fans as they shouted his name.
“I wanted to say hello and thank you, because the support was there,” Franco said. “It’s weird, you know. It’s something we’re not used to, not having fans in the grandstand. But at least we have to be happy doing what we’re doing, riding, doing what we love. I know it’s hard, but at the same time, we’re happy to win the race.”
“You could tell how much it meant to Manny, and it meant so much to us,” Sheker said. “It was this really cool moment that we were sharing. You could tell he missed hearing the crowd.
“He looked shocked. When he was coming around and I was screaming at him, he probably just saw my shoulders and my head over a fence.”
Sheker had heard someone whistle down the fenceline, so video time was over and whistle time had arrived.
She grew up in Colorado, turned into a racing fan when the filly Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby and became adept at the two-finger whistle at the age of 14 when a friend taught her over the course of a football game.
Whistler Woman’s superpower draws eye rolls from her field hockey-playing daughters.
“Yeah, ear-splitting is what people say it is,” Sheker said. “I do it a lot at sporting events, much to my daughters’ chagrin. They get mad at me. They’re like, ‘Just warn us when you’re going to do it, so we can cover our ears.’
“I gave it one of my best, biggest whistles.”
It turned into the perfect punctuation for Tiz the Law’s spectacular race, and a perfect illustration of his popularity with the fans.
“I’ve been on the rail at Belmont, but with so many people, you get lost in the crowd and you can’t have a moment like that,” Sheker said.
“Hey, COVID silver lining.
“I’ll never forget it.”
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