One of the most popular race tracks in the land is Saratoga, an old-line expanse where the first races were held in 1862. Where the grandstand is basically the same structure it was 150 years ago. Where the immaculate dirt course is watched with experienced eyes and the two turf courses are nestled around a large infield lake that hosts Canada geese and even a tame white duck or two.
The six weeks of the annual Saratoga meeting extended this summer from July 20-September 3 and gave those picnicking under the massive oaks behind the long grandstand just what they wanted — a relaxing afternoon of unhurried pleasure and a chance to see some of the best jockeys, trainers, and thoroughbreds in the country.
For all the Todd Pletchers, Chad Browns, and Steve Asmussens (among the trainers at The Spa), Ramon Dominguezes, Javier Castellanos, and Johnny Velazquezes (among the jockeys there), and Stonestreet Stables, Repole Stables, and Phipps Stables (among the well-heeled owners) there are still a few crews and riders trying to claw their way toward the upper reaches of the Sport of Kings.
A thoroughbred which was in that clawing-upward category was the nearly-white gelding, Sportswriter. A three-year-old whose niche hadn’t been established.
Sportswriter had been tried on the dirt in sprints by his second trainer (little-known Rudy Rodriguez) and second owners (equal parts of the “everyman” racing scene, Michael Dubb and Michael Imperio). The almost-white Sportswriter couldn’t last on the lead in most of those dirt course sprints.
But he was a stakes horse. His talent was easily seen. Trainer Rodriguez believed the owners when they told him Sportwriter’s best surface could be the grass. His closest relatives were best on the grass.
At Saratoga, on August 8, Sportswriter would justify the logic and reasoning his owners and their trainer had pieced together.
He was entered in the $100,000 Cab Calloway division of the New York Stallion Stakes series. The distance was seven furlongs.
There was some evidence the grey winner of three lifetime races in 11 tries just might not favor the grass, either. His lone start in 2012 on that surface saw him plod home sixth in the New York Stallion Series Spectacular Bid division.
But that race was on a yielding course labeled only as “good” and it was at Belmont Park on Long Island.
The firm course at Saratoga might suit him better. Afterall, the sixth-place mishap was his only finish worst than third in all seven of his starts this year.
King Kreesa, a winner in his last two stakes races, was the crowd’s betting favorite.
Strategy had been hatched that Sportswriter would not sprint to the lead, but would be held in check for a possible “one run” in the stretch that might overtake the race’s leaders and send him off to the winner’s circle.
Some of the planning was negated right at the outset when Sportswriter was brushed coming out of the starting gate and recovered only well enough to still be in last place in the early furlongs. But he was only about five lengths off the lead and was helped by Castellano’s ability to get him to the rail where he could save ground.
He moved past one horse as the pacesetters fled through the backstretch and neared the curve leading to the home stretch. Castellano saved ground near the hedge as the thoroughbreds were steered around the bend.
Once the home stretch opened to the field, Catellano left the rail and set after King Kreesa, now in front by three lengths after biding his time in a stalking position. It was Sportswriter, joined for a few moments by Sleepy Freud, moving to the leader. And then the crowd of about 15,000 gave throat to a louder sound when the grey took a short lead over the betting favorite.
King Kreesa was not wilting. He inched back in front about 70 yards from the wire. But the momentum given Sportswriter by Castellano continued, carrying the twosome ahead again. The last surge had been energy enough to win the duel by a neck.
Back in the winner’s circle, trainer Rodriguez waited a few minutes for his young daughter to get to the light-hearted celebration. When she bounded into the enclosure, the photographs the aforementioned horsemen would find to be routine were met with the upraised arms of enthusiasm from the two owners, trainer Rodriguez, his daughter, and a few other smiling faces.
The “little guys” had won a race at The Spa. A thoroughbred whose on-track history had been almost exclusively on dirt racing surfaces had won an important race on the grass.
The win was Sportswriter’s first stakes success.
Back in the tree-shaded picnic area where hundreds of families still munched on their fried chicken, and apple pie, and drank their New York “tea” all was still leisurely and slow-paced.
Saratoga had just seen a first-time stakes winner. But there were six more races on the afternoon card . . . and the geese were waddling through the large infield chasing June bugs and enjoying the sunshine.