MacAdam: For fans, a lost year at Saratoga

Jockey Manny Franco fist-bumps with groom Juan Barajas after Tiz the Law won the Travers on Aug. 8.
Jockey Manny Franco fist-bumps with groom Juan Barajas after Tiz the Law won the Travers on Aug. 8.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — There’s a box in which I keep all of the press passes issued to me since I started in this business in the 1980s. I’ll bet it weighs about 12 pounds.

I keep everything. If you need a lanyard for some reason, I’m your guy.

There are small ones, big laminated ones, passes to hockey games, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, Triple Crown races and, of course, Saratoga Race Course.

Two of my favorites are the 2010 Belmont Stakes and a special Travers Stakes one issued separately from the season credential in 1987. It’s a big red square pin, with “Travers” in Gothic type. The year isn’t printed on it, but I know it’s 1987 because under my name it says “Times Record” instead of Daily Gazette, from the one year I worked in Troy.

The Belmont one is cool because it’s a large pass tucked through a slot into a big clear plastic cover. It looks like an ant farm (with no ants) because there’s still sand from Big Sandy in it, from when a bunch of us were splattered by mud as the ambulance trailing a field that included eventual winner Drosselmeyer ripped through a puddle near the rail in the winner’s circle, where we were watching the start and finish.

The latest addition to this box is unlike anything else in there. Because 2020 is unlike any year we’ve ever experienced.

Over the course of the 2020 Saratoga meet, my nightly ritual when I got home was to cut off the colored wristband they give you after passing a temperature check at the track, write down the number of the racing day, the date and the stakes winners on the back. They’re all pinned together now in a weird multicolored ponytail of crinkled paper.

We’re not going to forget 2020, ever, but this seemed like an appropriate keepsake and reminder of how different this Saratoga meet was, for those very few of us who were allowed on the grounds, and those of us who weren’t because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m pleased to report that, for the first time in five years, I didn’t get sick during the meet. You have your traditions; I have mine, and I was happy to lose this one. You may disagree about whether wearing face masks make a difference or somehow believe that it’s some sort of infringement of your civil rights, but I’ll chalk up a sniffle-free two months at Saratoga to sanitary practices, thanks.

The New York Racing Association reported no coronavirus positives during the meet, which was held under a lockdown of the jockey colony, a trouble spot in other jurisdictions.

There was some grumbling among horsemen about even having a Saratoga meet this year, since preventative COVID-19 measures appeared to be working at Belmont Park once it was allowed to start racing again, and why mess with that? But NYRA was motivated by the strength of the Saratoga brand to run here — the meet generated over $700 million in betting handle for the second year in a row — especially because the organization believed there was potential for admitting at least a limited number of fans before the end of the meet.

That never happened, and it was a new experience to rattle around a near-empty Saratoga every day, passing the Big Red Spring and seeing a wooden red box over the fountain to prevent access, watching lush grass grow untrampled in the picnic area and hearing only the pop of the whips, like kids working over a sheet of bubble wrap, as the horses approached the wire.

We got to the point where, if a tumbleweed had rolled across the pavement behind the grandstand, the thought would’ve been, “Well … yeah.”

Frequently, the horses were a sight to behold, even if the only way you could do that was on TV or an electronic device.

And none commanded more attention than Tiz the Law, who had ice cream, face masks, a Tiztini cocktail and even four stop signs at the intersection of Nelson Avenue and York Street.

He won the Travers in stunning fashion, but a loss to Authentic in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday shattered his aura of invincibility.

It also opened up an intense debate about what trainer Barclay Tagg and the Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga Stable should do next with him, complicated by the fact that there likely are “kicker” bonuses for winning the Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic and an Eclipse Award through a stallion rights deal Sackatoga has made with Ashford Stud.

Tagg doesn’t want to go to the Oct. 3 Preakness, but there is incentive to do so, and also reason to believe that winning the Preakness might lock up the Eclipse, whether Tiz the Law goes to the Breeders’ Cup or not. Skipping the Preakness would freshen Tiz the Law for the BC Classic, but he would have to take on older horses like Maximum Security, Tom’s d’Etat and By My Standards there.

“I haven’t seen a speed figure but it sounds like he bounced a little bit off the big Travers effort, and Barclay has a question that maybe he just really doesn’t like the racetrack,” Sackatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton told the Maryland Jockey Club press office on Sunday.

“Watching him finish, he said he was kind of swimming a little bit maybe coming down the stretch. But he ran the race that we were looking for. He got the trip. [Jockey] Manny [Franco] gave him a great ride and he just didn’t beat one horse. There’s no shame in running second in the Kentucky Derby.”

Tiz the Law was scheduled to fly from Kentucky to New York and return to Belmont Park on Tuesday.

“I’ll have that discussion with Barclay and we’ll take a little time to see,” Knowlton said. “My thinking is that we will [run in the Preakness], but we’ll have the horse dictate what’s going to happen. Certainly that would be my preference but we’ve just go to see how he comes out and see how he works when we have the next work in a couple weeks. We’ll have time for a couple works.”

Besides Tiz the Law’s Travers (and covering his five breezes at Saratoga, whether the sun was up or not), some moments that stick out for me are Swiss Skydiver winning the Alabama; Gamine taking the Test; Volatile establishing himself as the best sprinter in North America in the A.G. Vanderbilt; Rushing Fall winning the Diana (late in the meet, not early, like it usually is); and Win Win Win’s crazy-wide trip from way out of it in last place to win the Forego.

If you were in Saratoga Springs that afternoon, you may have seen the huge rainbow that appeared as Win Win Win went into the winner’s circle, a moment for everyone to share whether they were at the track or not.

Then there was Tom’s d’Etat, the even-money betting favorite in the Whitney who spotted the field several lengths when he misstepped out of the starting gate. It was an awful, sinking feeling for trainer Al Stall, when the horse who had prepared beautifully for one of the biggest races of the meet loses all chance before he’s two strides into it.

Improbable won the Whitney for trainer Bob Baffert, who also spoiled the Tiz the Law Derby party with Authentic.

Improbable’s name is on one of my wrist bands; Tom’s d’Etat’s is not.

But I’ll remember him every time I pull out that collection, anyway, and remember what didn’t happen, what people didn’t get to see, and that lost opportunity in the lost year of 2020.

Reach Mike MacAdam at [email protected] Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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