Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hail, to the Chief

So the other morning I'm wandering around the backstretch at Belmont Park, and I walk by Allen Jerkens' barn, hoping against hope that he will be there, and sure enough he's sitting on the old park bench just inside the doorway, hat on, bundled up in two pairs of pants and three jackets.
"And I'm still cold," he says, nodding goodbye to another visitor.
I ask him when he's leaving for Florida.
"Saturday," he says, and makes a face. "Going through the airport, having to take your shoes off ... travelling used to be so much more fun."
Taking a cue from Brooklyn Backstretch, I don't ask a question, I just wait.
"Eastern Airlines," he says after a moment or two, with a smile. "You'd go to the airport, go into the club lounge, and they'd give you a drink, or maybe a Mimosa. (Great mental image: Chief drinking Mimosas) Bacon and eggs, great food. It was something back then."
Another pause.
"You know, the guy who founded Eastern Airlines, Rickenbacker?"
"Eddie Rickenbacker?"
"His plane went down in the Pacific in World War II and he was on a raft for a month before they found him."
"A month?"
There's another pause as I digest this, and then he asks if I'd like to come along to watch a filly work. I make a turn to walk toward the training track, but he stops me and says he's driving (so soon after getting out of the hospital?) but I climb into the cab of his truck and he pulls around to a corner spot and there are horses all over the place. It looks like a cavalry charge.
I notice that some of them have their winter coats coming in.
"You know, I could never figure out why some of them get the wooly bear coats and others don't," he says. "Sky Beauty was one of them. We'd clip her and everything, but that was one of the reasons she never did any good in Breeders' Cup."
The gray filly has galloped by, and Chief backs the truck around and heads back to the barn.
"How she'd do in the gate," he asks the exercise rider, who shakes her head.
"She didn't know what to do," she explains. "Finally, we got her to walk through."
Jerkens then tells Fernando he'd like to see the pony. I, of course, take this literally, thinking he wants to look at Circus but no, here comes Circus all tacked up and there goes Chief up onto the mounting block and with no help at all he hauls himself into the saddle and walks off and I hold my breath and think, Dear God, please don't let anything happen but nothing does, and everything is all right, because the Chief really is back in the saddle, again.

Photo by Sarah K. Andrew

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Harvey Pack tells a story about a horseplayer who would faithfully check the television monitors when the National Anthem was played, to look at the American flag and see which way the wind was blowing.
He didn't realize it was a videotaped flag.
No such problem at Aqueduct on Saturday, with a steady wind blowing from the north at around 15-20 miles an hour and the flags over the infield toteboard fully extended. I forget exactly how to calculate the wind-chill factor, but with the thermometer reading 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it felt as if it were 17 degrees. At least to normal people.
For Gary Contessa, it was downright balmy. While the connections of Wishful Tomcat were bundled in a multitude of layers for their appearance in the winner's circle for the $100,000 Discovery Handicap and winning jockey Ramon Dominguez's face was remarkable for its cherry-like hue, Contessa's camel topcoat was unbuttoned, his hands ungloved, and his head unhatted.
"Make it 20 degrees warmer?" he protested. "I'd like it 20 degrees colder. Maybe it will push the Florida trainers out sooner."
Which would suit him just fine. Contessa has been a dominant force at the Big A since the millenium, and Wishful Tomcat may be one of his biggest players in the upcoming weeks. The New York-bred son of Tactical Cat dazzled in his 17 3/4-length inner-track maiden win here nearly a year ago, and even had Contessa thinking Kentucky Derby, but then underwent surgery to remove a chip in his knee and was out for eight months. He is now 4-for-5 since his return with a graded stakes on his resume.
"All I can say is, 'Watch out New York-breds!' said Contessa.
He's probably right.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Last Lonely Racehorse ....

Richard Migliore once told me the off-season was a wonderful time to visit Saratoga. "When the wind blows the leaves piled up on the far turn," he said, "it's easy to imagine they're being scattered by the ghostly hoofs of the champions who raced there." Last weekend, for the first time, I ventured north. With the backstretch closing on November 17, squirrels easily outnumbered the horses. There were dozens of the feisty little creatures scampering about Saturday morning, leaping from rafter to rafter in the deserted barns or scampering up the leafless trees, angrily chittering at the strangers walking by.

The stall where Curlin reigned all summer was shuttered, the shedrow barren; Commentator's stall was empty, as was those of Indian Blessing and Ginger Punch.

Only a handful of horses were on the track at 7 o'clock; an outrider sat silently on his pony near the gap, and while it was warm and there was a familiar fog hanging over the turf course and the infield, it was more of a gray and desolate shroud than the magical mist of the summer months. And yet, it was not at all depressing, just ... different. There were all sorts of interesting discoveries; a pile of horseshoes behind Nick Zito's barn (who had they belonged to?), a plaque hidden behind a bush near the blacksmith's office commemorating late comrades, the detritus of scores of backstretch workers piled outside the dorms. Here, hoofprints in the mud, leading off to somewhere, over there, a curry comb, forgotten in the move. It was just an empty stage, waiting for the players to spring back into life, in hibernation for the long winter ahead.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On Maylan and Jackie ....

Too many years ago to imagine, an editor at the New York City tabloid at which I worked suggested I begin writing a weekly column about women athletes. At the time, I was covering pro football, baseball, and horse racing, and the only women athletes I knew personally had names like Winning Colors or Personal Ensign. I demurred, suggesting that perhaps the newspaper's tennis writer or golf writer might be better suited for the assignment as they had actual dealings with female athletes. No, said the editor, since I was the only woman sportswriter on the staff, I was the logical choice for such an undertaking. That, of course, immediately got my Irish up. If that's the case, I retorted, perhaps the section should launch a column about minority athletes and assign it to the staff's lone African-American reporter. The conversation rapidly deteriorated into a highly-charged emotional debate (which I have an unhappy genius for instigating) but eventually, order was restored and life went on -- without said column.
As one of only a handful of female sportswriters in the country writing for a major metropolitan daily, I was very skittish about being pigeon-holed. I had put up with too many insults and been kicked out of too many lockerrooms to accept being shunted off the mainstream beats. I felt that being asked to write up close and personal columns about athletes I had nothing in common with (other than basic anatomy) was professionally insulting. I still do.
But the editor, ham-handed as he was about the whole thing, had one good point, that being, anything that draws new readers into the sports section is good.
Which brings us to Maylan Studart and Jackie Davis. Maylan won here at Aqueduct on opening day, and again yesterday; Jackie scored her first victory on Wednesday. Both have been receieving an amount of media attention disproportionate to their success; Sebastian Morales' first victory went largely unnoticed last year, and I do not think much has been made of Victor Santiago or Jose Berrios. It has been suggested it is unfair for young woman riders to get so much publicity. That may well be. Yet I can't help but think back to the argument with my editor, and I remain convinced that anything that can bring in new fans is good. Ride on!