Sunday, August 24, 2008

Making Withdrawals, Finally

After three days of winning just enough each day to avoid comprehensive failure, I finally broke through at the track on Sunday. The last day is always the best time to do it, so that the NYRA doesn't have a chance to get it back from me. Yet.

I'll get to the winning details in a minute, but a quick(ish) story first:

One of the most charming aspects of Saratoga is the paddock, a beautiful area where the horses are saddled and the jockeys meet up with them before each race. One of my father's friends is a part owner of horses himself, and each year he's nice enough to use his pass to bring me into the paddock, where I can get photos like this without zooming or aiming over people's heads:

I go to the paddock several other times each year to take a pre-race peek at a horse's size or condition, because it's easy to get almost as close to the animals while standing outside the fence. (The people past the horse in the picture above are "outside" the paddock.) On Sunday, I went with two of our friends before the sixth race. (It was the first race for several of the entrants, and viewing them can be particularly useful when they don't have prior results.) The number-six horse, Cheering, went wild. I've seen horses act up in the paddock, but this was different. When the jockeys go up, the horses walk a path right along the fence, near lots of spectators. Cheering reared back, stayed in the air for several seconds, and when she came down she cracked a part of the fence into splinters. Her handler lost control of her, and it appeared that she was basically going to run free through the crowd. (She was maybe 30 yards from me at this point.) I took off like a shot. Soon after turning tail (along with scores of other people, like we were in a Godzilla movie), I heard someone say, "It's OK, it's OK." I was not going to take this person's word for it.

It turned out that the horse had changed direction and done her running free around the paddock. When I got back, one of our friends, someone about my age, said, "Man, you bolted. I hid behind that." He pointed to a fairly small structure that looked like the freestanding air-conditioning units you see outside homes in Texas, just a few feet away from us, which Cheering would have had to run around if she had made it that far. (Then again, her treatment of the fence just seconds before had made clear that she was fine running through things.)

I have an increased respect for the strength of a horse, and for the weakness of me.

Now, to the tickets: I started with a winner in the first, Anita Rosita, who led going into the stretch, looked beat, and then fought back to win by a hair on its nose. In the fifth, I won with my most confident pick of the day, It's Not For Love, who also barely won. I had the exacta there, too, with Upper Gulch in second. If the photo finish had gone the other way, which it would have if the finish line were about an eight of an inch further along, it would have just been another loss.

I not-so-slowly gave back my winnings -- and then some -- but the last two races sent me home a solid winner. In the feature race -- the Ballerina Stakes, which for some reason tends to be lucky for me each year -- I had the trifecta of Intangaroo, Miraculous Miss, and Sugar Swirl. In the finale, I had $10 on the exacta of Exonerated and Can She Dance.

The week would have earned an A even without the last-minute success at the track. The days were clear and sunny, the nights were cool and breezy, the food and drink were plentiful, and the ponies were thrilling. I came up here several summers as a kid, but it's hard to believe that next year will be my 10th visit since moving to New York as an adult. As always, I can't wait.
(Ed. Note: I've revised this post to reflect the fact that Cheering is, in fact, a filly. Cheering, if you're reading this, I apologize for confusing your gender. Please do not find me and stomp on me.)


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