This lively, appealing and vivid history of the Travers Stakes horse race in Saratoga Springs came about because Vic Zast was looking at the wall one day.
‘The History and Art of 25 Travers’
AUTHORS: Vic Zast and Greg Montgomery
ILLUSTRATOR: Greg Montgomery
PUBLISHER: North Country Books, 144 pages, ISBN 978-1-59531-0231-1
HOW MUCH: $45
In a recent telephone conversation, Zast, a freelance journalist, described how he and Montgomery came to collaborate. For several years, he said, “I wanted to write a unique book about Saratoga.”
He developed and discarded several ideas. Then, one day, sitting in his study, “I looked up at my wall and saw five of Greg’s posters.” He contacted Montgomery, learned there were more than 20 posters and proposed that they collaborate on a book, with the posters and the history of the Travers as two story lines.
Montgomery, who has completed 26 Travers posters, came to the work serendipitously. In 1985, the Washington native had arrived in Saratoga and saw a small poster announcing the race. He decided to design a more distinctive one.
By the time of the 1986 race, he had a poster with the silks of 13 Travers winners and the silks of two other horses that appealed to him.
From that poster, a party favor at the Travers Celebration, he has gone on to design a poster every year; 15 have been used as cover art for Dick Francis’ mystery novels.
Following a foreword by trainer Carl Nafzger, the book is arranged chronologically with Zast and Montgomery writing a chapter on each Travers from 1986 to 2007, as well as the 1930, 1962 and 1978 races.
Zast covers the races and Saratoga’s mood; Montgomery explains how he chose a subject each year and how he designed the poster.
Zast is a gifted, well-organized writer. In a few sentences, he communicates a racing concept or gives the reader a sense of the track on a given day or the feel of the night life in Saratoga.
Although he has seen 45 Travers races and loves horse racing, he is after more than an account of starts and finishes. “I did not restrict my research to sports pages; I did much research in the news and social pages of the newspapers of the day. I tried,” he concluded, “to bring Saratoga to life.”
In doing so, he captures high and low points. He writes exuberant paragraphs about how jockeys felt racing down the track and captures the excitement of the spectators.
I particularly liked a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt as governor. The caption reveals that Roosevelt breakfasted in the Saratoga clubhouse on the day of the 1930 Travers with two of his Groton classmates, each the owner of a horse highly favored to win the race. The picture demonstrates Roosevelt’s determination to return to public life after polio.
Zast also shows that racing is a demanding, dangerous business for horses and people. He describes how the horse Tabasco Cat ran over Jeff Lukas in 1993, “leaving him brain damaged and ending his promising career as a horse trainer.” Early in the book are pictures of horses storming through the mud and my heart was in my mouth considering what would happen if any of the speeding horses slipped and fell.
Those who know nothing about horse racing may not understand all the vocabulary. Yet Zast works hard to explain the concepts. He taught me about “rabbitting,” where a trainer will enter one horse in the race to start fast and inspire another, more favored horse to chase and run faster.
There is a wealth of information for people who love the details of thoroughbred racing. There is an appendix with the “Daily Racing Form” charts for each race and offers summary statistics about all the races. Each chapter provides short charts and sidebars to share details and provide statistics about the key trainers, owners or horses in each race.
Montgomery clearly explains the demanding mechanics of assembling a poster and has a good story for how he came to each poster subject, or how he shepherded the design through difficult creative steps. One of my favorite stories concerns “First Race,” his 2003 poster, with a view of the last stretch of the track from the clubhouse.
The first design had three people at a table in the foreground. This was consistent with his style of using bold colors and scenes that are uncluttered and focused. His friends were perplexed; they thought the clubhouse was empty. “So,” Montgomery writes, “I brought more people into the pictures.” He even brought in “The Lady in Red,” the fashionable, binocular-toting woman who was the subject of his 1990 poster.
His posters captures all of Saratoga’s moods. You feel the thundering of the hooves, and when the design features the paddock or the grandstand, you feel the congenial atmosphere of watching horses on a nice summer day.
One of my favorites, “Storm Bird,” commemorates Birdstone’s 2004 Travers victory — just before a big storm blew in. With a few colors, including deep purple, Montgomery captures the horse’s speed and the power of the storm closing in on the track.
The book will appeal to many readers: horse racing fans and those curious about Saratoga and New York history and how an artist turns an idea into a work of art.
Zast and Montgomery will appear at the following locations: Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2; National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, from 10 a.m. to noon, Sunday, Aug. 3; Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7; Borders, Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 8; Saratoga Race Course, Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 1 to 3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 16; Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 19; Saratoga Race Course, Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Aug. 20 to 22 and all day Saturday Aug. 23.