SARATOGA SPRINGS — For me, the lasting images of the 2017 Saratoga Race Course season will be the horseshoe tangled up in Gun Runner’s tail, and the “Mon Dieu!” look on jockey Florent Geroux’s face when I showed him video of it while we were still on the track after the Whitney.
Another Whitney horse, Cautious Giant, had one of his shoes flip off and straight up in the air as they came to the half-mile pole, and it dropped down and miraculously became ensnared in Gun Runner’s long tail.
I’ve been covering Saratoga since 1987; never saw that before. By the way, at one point early in the meet, a horse named Perplexed won at odds of 115-1, because of course he did.
It’s all a reminder of two things: how Saratoga never ceases to astonish, and . . . it’s complicated.
Here are 10 moments/observations that define, in part, the 2017 season:
1. Gun Runner swept the Whitney and the Woodward in spectacular fashion. One of the cool times to see him, though, was at 6 a.m., when his groom would lead him out of his stall at Steve Asmussen’s barn for a workout. By the time he’d get back for a bath, the sun would be peeking over the horizon to gleam off his chestnut neck with a golden shimmer. As much as Gun Runner was a model of consistency, he was also a jewel.
As was Lady Eli, a rough diamond who fiercely bulled her way to a victory in the Ballston Spa on Travers Day to sweep that race and the Grade I Diana on opening weekend.
Gun Runner was a fan favorite because of the dominance of his victories; the crowd loved Lady Eli because of her brilliance, but also her backstory. She was off for 13 months because of near-fatal laminitis, and the adoring Saratoga fans clearly were aware of that and responded accordingly.
Sadly for Songbird fans, she lost the Personal Ensign and won’t make the Breeders’ Cup, after owner Rick Porter retired her.
2. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was responsible for that 115-1 bomb Perplexed, and also closed the meet on Monday with a bang when Sporting Chance won the Grade I Hopeful. Oh, and Lukas turned 82 during the meet and won a race on his birthday.
3. Speaking of (relatively) old guys, 45-year-old jockey John Velazquez, another Hall of Famer, won 46 races to finish third in the riding standings behind the Ortiz brothers.
I’ll remember this image from closing day: Johnny V walking off the track after losing a race, his lips bloody from getting popped in the mouth by his horse’s head. Later, he was rubbing his lips with an ice cube during a post-race pow wow with trainer Todd Pletcher.
All in a day’s work.
4. There seemed to be a muted celebration of the trainer championship, won by Pletcher over Mechanicville’s Chad Brown, 40-39. Those two duked it out for the duration of the meet, and Pletcher held off Brown over the last two days as the track absorbed an all-day soaker on Sunday and was still compromised by all that rain on closing day.
Their duopoly’s wins accounted for 79 of 406 races at the meet, almost 20 percent. A total of 108 trainers with at least one win at the meescratched and clawed for the other 327 victories. While Brown didn’t win the title, his horses generated more purse earnings than Pletcher’s, $4,358,465 to $3,552,822.
5. Trainer Linda Rice quietly had a terrific meet in third place behind the top two, and the highlight was Voodoo Song, who won four races — the last of which was the Grade III Saranac on Saturday.
He was the first horse to go 4-for-4 at the meet since the great Native Dancer did it in 1952.
6. Another number that will serve as a grim reminder of the diligence we must maintain to keep these horses safe is 19.
That’s how many equine deaths associated with Saratoga that have been recorded on the New York State Gaming Commission Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database since the Oklahoma training track opened in April, the first of which was a fatal breakdown on May 28.
Seventeen occurred after the July 21 opening day, and covered a wide range of incidents, including two who got sick with untreatable colic and had to be euthanized. There was an even balance between racing and training fatalities, and they occurred on the main track, the inner turf course, during steeplechase races and on the Oklahoma.
The 19 were the most recorded at Saratoga in a year since the NYSGC started the database in 2009.
7. The annual rumor mill about the meet being extended took on a different tone this year. There’s a certainty now, and it’s just a matter of when, not if, since change is afoot at the New York Racing Association’s other two tracks — Belmont Park and Aqueduct — that likely will affect Saratoga.
8. It was great to see jockey Rajiv Maragh back in the saddle at Saratoga, which he missed for the last two seasons because of a host of serious injuries from a spill, and a long recovery.
His bright, smiling white teeth shone through a mask of mud on closing day after he won on a horse named Unexplained in the second race, which . . .
9. . . . Was dedicated to our old buddy Mike Jarboe, a retired newsside copy editor at the Times Union and a long-time handicapper for them. Mike has suffered from cancer since last season, and was joyfully engulfed by family and friends in the winner’s circle.
A funny, engaging character who goes to music festivals to play the fiddle and once brought a mason jar of authentic Kentucky moonshine back to the Saratoga pressbox, Mike and I engaged in a friendly contest called the Cherry Choke Challenge in 2013. Both annoyed by the obnoxious stoplight on Route 9 and Cherry Choke Road on the way to the track, we kept stoplight results for the duration of the meet, won by me on the final day, for which Mike paid for a $20 betting voucher. Any earnings would go to the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund.
I scored on Strong Mandate in the Hopeful (trained, of course, by Lukas), and out of the goodness of his heart, Mike matched the profit that went to the TRF.
10. My two favorite stories to write (besides the wacky Whitney horseshoe caper) pretty much bookended the meet.
I did a feature column on former Scotia-Glenville basketball star Alex Sausville, now a college senior who surrendered a good job with a law firm that he liked the last two summers for one that he loved this summer, working as a spotter to help the clockers from 5:30-10 a.m. during training every day at the track.
Alex is 21 and has ventured to almost 30 tracks, some of which are shut down, including the weedy, decrepit Great Barrington Fairgrounds in Massachusetts last weekend, which began racing in 1859, before Saratoga did, but has been closed since 1998.
The other story was on 76-year-old Allan Carter, the National Racing Museum’s historian who recently published a book about the advent of New York-breds, which goes back a few centuries.
In both cases, long conversations easily could have been much longer and will be picked up later.
For me, those guys serve as a welcome counterweight to comments like this from NYRA CEO Chris Kay, speaking to a Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce breakfast in August: “The improved children’s playground area is as important and as strategic a capital improvement as we will ever make when it comes to the sustainability of our organization and therefore the sustainability of the Saratoga economy.”
As one trainer told me last year, referring to NYRA management, “Everybody know’s it’s a dog-and-pony show over there.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of people like Allan and Alex who get that it’s about the horses.