Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watmanby Maxwell Watman
On the racetrack, history is made two minutes at a time. Race Day tells the story of American horse racing through the stories of its most intriguing, most confounding, most entertaining races since the early nineteenth century, including the great tracks where they were run and the people and horses that marvelously came together to make it all happen. Here is Jim
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On the racetrack, history is made two minutes at a time. Race Day tells the story of American horse racing through the stories of its most intriguing, most confounding, most entertaining races since the early nineteenth century, including the great tracks where they were run and the people and horses that marvelously came together to make it all happen. Here is Jim Dandy beating Gallant Fox at Saratoga; the first Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs; Man o' War's Preakness at Pimlico; Johnny Longden's last ride in the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita; Secretariat losing the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; Alydar winning the Bluegrass at Keeneland; John Henry, Bill Shoemaker, and the first Arlington Million; Smarty Jones's heartbreaking loss at the Belmont Stakes; and many more. Throughout Race Day, Max Watman, a seasoned observer of the sport, concentrates on great stories and personalities. He's traveled to each of the tracks, interviewed the principals who are still around, eavesdropped in the track kitchen, stood in the winner's circle, gone to horse libraries. Most of the fun of his book is atmospheric. It starts on May 27, 1823, when sixty thousand peopleincluding most of Congress, Andrew Jackson, and Aaron Burrpacked the Union Race Course on Long Island to watch the match race between American Eclipse representing the North, and Sir Henry representing the South. The race was to be run in four heats, with a flag flown atop the nearby bakery so that those in town might know the fate of their wagerswhite for a Northern victory, black for a Southern one. After the first heat, the black flag rose on the rooftop, and the stock market crashed. Race Day is filled with such wonderful stories and illustrated with 20 black-and-white photographs.
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RACE DAYA Spot on the Rail with MAX WATMAN
By MAX WATMAN
IVAN R. DEECopyright © 2005 Max Watman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOut on Long Island, the Beginning
In 2003, Funny Cide became the first New York bred to win the Kentucky Derby. Although some said he'd had a lucky trip on the first Saturday in May, he followed with a masterful, dominating victory at the Preakness which silenced most doubters and created a buzz that swept the city and took up the front page of most newspapers. All the ink said maybe he was the real thing, our big horse, our Triple Crown winner. He wasn't, but the possibility changed the lives of his owners, his trainers, and me.
Here's how it happened: I had been writing book reviews and features for the fledgling New York Sun. The paper was a year old, and in April it added a sports page. I begged an assignment to go report on the biggest race of the year at Aqueduct, and really the only Kentucky Derby prep race that is run in New York, April's Wood Memorial. I'd been a fan of racing all my life, since I used to sit at the rail in Charles Town, West Virginia, with my parents and a picnic, since my grandfather took me to see the flamingos in the infield at beautiful old Hialeah in Florida. I'd never thought about being a sportswriter, but it seemed natural enough to write about a horse race.
That year's big horse was not Funny Cide. Stallions with rich bloodlines triumph in the classic three-year-old stakes races, and Funny Cide wasn't one of those. Funny Cide wasn't a stallion. He was a gelding (one of his testicles hadn't descended, and he'd been castrated as a result). A syndicate of upstate New Yorkers, all very obviously not the blue-blooded, private-jet type who are supposed to dominate the races, owned him. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, was not exactly the sort that typically stands in the winner's circle smiling after the million-dollar race. Tagg is the kind of smart, hardworking reserved trainer that horsemen love, but he doesn't typically win big stake races.
The big horse that year was Empire Maker. Coming onto the stretch in his last outing in the Florida Derby, he had blown by a horse named Trust N Luck, and had opened up nine and three-quarters lengths to win as if he were running in another league. And he looked the part: Empire Maker is a rippling, dappled, dark bay; the brown of his body fades to midnight at his feet and tail, and he stands just over sixteen hands, or sixty-four inches. At the Wood he was expected to further cement his position as the Derby favorite. Everyone knew it: Empire Maker was the horse.
I stood with my wife on the grass by the clubhouse turn for much of the day, and we watched a group of little children, three- and four-year-olds, run races against each other for hours. Their dads would take turns being the starting gates, finish lines, and pace cars, while the kids tirelessly toddled back and forth. Occasionally they would break out in a chant: "Empire Maker! Empire Maker! Empire Maker!" They were well-informed children.
It occurred to me then how straightforward this game is. Aside from all the hieroglyphic notations on the Racing Form, aside from all the traditions, the funny names, the personalities, and the money, it's a very simple game: run. First one there wins. Children understand it. Give them a name of who is going to win, and they understand that too.
The track was listed as muddy, but I remember sunshine. It was a pleasant day at the Big A. We were comfortable sitting in the grass on our jackets when our feet got tired. Nearby, a group of young New Yorkers, two couples, was having loud fun, teasing one another, falling asleep, and drinking beer in the sun.
A spring day at Aqueduct-this is as idyllic as New York City gets.
By the time the Wood came around, the crowd had bet the big Empire Maker down to be the overwhelming favorite at 1-2. The speed horse New York Hero had taken some action too, because of his name. Speed, in racing, doesn't mean exactly what one might think. Obviously the horse that runs the fastest will win the race, but that horse is not necessarily said to have speed. Speed means that the horse is a front-runner: he gets out of the gate fast and rushes to the lead. It's a very hard way to win races. The horse that leads early rarely has the strength to close the deal. Man o' War, among others, certainly proved that a horse vastly better will prevail no matter. New York Hero wasn't vastly better. He was not about to prevail, no matter what the crowd thought of his name. He was overmatched.
New York Hero would do what an overmatched speed horse must do: attempt to steal the race. He would jump to the front and try to set a false pace, leaving some gas in the tank for later. By the time he had nothing left, maybe all the other horses would have fallen into a sinkhole or all the jockeys would have fallen off. You never know.
When the gates clanged open, it was New York Hero out front, and people were cheering for him as he led the field through all the early segments of the race-the splits. Racing is typically divided into quarter-miles, which are further divided into furlongs, which are an eighth of a mile. Horses that are running perfectly run a furlong in about twelve seconds. Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by thirty-one lengths because he ran perfect twelve-second furlongs all around the track. The splits are important elements in understanding how a race is unfolding. New York Hero ran the first quarter in 23.5 seconds, the half in 47.21, and six furlongs in 1:11.19. Averaging just under twelve seconds per furlong. This was no false pace. He was running as fast as he could. He'd never make it.
Sure enough, at the top of the stretch, New York Hero gave way. Empire Maker had been wide around all the turns, well within striking distance, rating just off the pace-letting New York Hero burn himself out-alongside Funny Cide.
Now Empire Maker gained the lead. In Florida this had been all she wrote. Empire Maker had made his move at the top of the stretch, and the field had melted away behind him, slogging along like pack mules.
But here at the Wood, Funny Cide came at him. Empire Maker opened it up. Funny Cide came at him again. I was astonished. They went under the wire like that. Funny Cide on the inside, running his heart out trying to get up past Empire Maker, while the big horse on the outside looked like he was playing. Empire Maker was watching the crowd when he went under the wire, ears perked. He was out for a jog. Empire Maker might as well have been playing golf.
That's what everyone picked up: Empire Maker toys with the competition to romp home in the $750,000 Wood Memorial. No argument from me on that. But what I'd seen was Funny Cide. He tried twice. That's saying something. That's guts.
By the time they hit the wire, Empire Maker and Funny Cide were seven and a half lengths ahead of the field. In Florida, Empire Maker had left every other horse that far up the track. Here, Empire Maker had a half a length lead. His jockey, Jerry Bailey, said the horse was goofy, and that if he'd hit him, Empire Maker would have pulled off to a greater victory. As it was, the Wood was one of the fastest of the Derby Preps. Empire Maker had won by half a length, but Funny Cide had shown something real. I saw it. That was one gutsy gelding.
And he was going to the Derby. I wrote my piece on the Wood and pitched another on Funny Cide headed for the Derby. I hung around Barclay Tagg's barn and watched the routine. I leaned on the rail in the morning with the clockers and the jockey agents, observing the morning workouts. I met the vet. Occasionally I petted Funny Cide. Mostly I was ignored by Tagg and his crew, and I tried to stay out of the way.
They're busy folks. One of the things that most amazed me was that the work didn't stop. You're sending one horse to the Kentucky Derby, but you've still got to worry about your filly down at the other end of the barn that's having trouble breathing.
Finally, on my last day at Belmont, Tagg walked up and said, "Okay. Whaddaya need?"
When Tagg found himself in the news a lot, he was frequently described as "taciturn." I don't think that's fair, but he's certainly not a showy guy, nor is he effusively convivial. He's a wiry, balding, hard worker with a serious demeanor. He's spent his life outside, around horses, and it shows.
How'd you like the Wood?
"He had more poise in that race than I'd seen in him yet," Tagg said. "He learns something every day."
Can he go the Derby distance? Tagg admitted it was a grueling race but said that Funny Cide was built for it.
"He's got a good hind end. He could push through a brick wall."
Tagg praised Robin Smullen, his girlfriend, assistant trainer, and Funny Cide's exercise rider. "He's a hard horse to control," said Tagg. "He's strong. She's great with him."
What kind of race would favor him? "I'd like to see a race just like the Wood." Tagg paused, watching a handler rub Funny Cide down outside barn six. "But I'd like to win it."
My piece went into the paper as a small feature box on the bottom of the sports page: "Local Horse Makes Good." I left that "I'd like to win it" dangling at the end of the piece, as if it were a prediction. I quoted Tagg on the horse's suitability for the Derby distance. I listed his victories and strengths. I wrote: "You rarely root for the home team at the track.... But at the 129th Kentucky Derby tomorrow, New Yorkers have a strong home team to root for."
The Derby was a perfect race for Funny Cide. While the other horses fought incredible traffic, Funny Cide was coolly tucked in, just off the lead, like a quarterback in the pocket all the way around. The horses out front tore through fractions; they had nothing left when it came to the stretch. Empire Maker came up on the outside, and jockey Jose Santos tapped Funny Cide and told him to go. Funny Cide really opened up. Trainer Bobby Frankel's two magnificent horses, Peace Rules, who had hung a much harder race and stuck valiantly for third, and Empire Maker, the horse who had toyed with Funny Cide so recently, couldn't get up to him on the first Saturday in May. Funny Cide broke into the lead on the stretch, and Tom Durkin's call of that race gave him a nickname he has to this day: "The Gutsy Gelding Funny Cide has won the 129th Kentucky Derby."
My little article in the Sun was now buried under a mountain of press about the local horse and the modest Sackatoga Stable. Suddenly, television cameras were at Tagg's barn. Everyone was coming by to congratulate them. The next time I saw Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen, they barely remembered who I was.
But there it was, I'd scooped the Funny Cide story, albeit in a very small way. Still, I had him. Feels pretty good after a horse that breaks all the Derby rules (New York breds don't win the Derby, geldings don't win the Derby, Barclay Tagg doesn't win the Derby) slips under the wire.
It was also my first evidence of what it means to be a Sportswriter-a writer for a part of the paper that people read and argue about. I had talked briefly with the doorman of a building in which I worked in Manhattan about Funny Cide. My advice was no stronger than "Don't count him out." So the guy put him in all his trifecta bets. (A trifecta is a very hard bet to win. You have to name the win, place, and show horse in a race. Most of the time, you'll be wrong about any one of those slots.) This guy, like a lot of guys, bets a great deal of trifecta wagers on one race. You can do this-make fifty small wagers of a buck or two on a race-because the payoffs on a trifecta can be very big. He won something like six hundred dollars. For a while after the Derby, it was hard for me to get through the lobby and up to the office. Who do you like in the Preakness, Max?
The Triple Crown consists of three old races at three old tracks. It starts at the Kentucky Derby, then moves to Baltimore for the Preakness, and ends in New York for the Belmont Stakes. These are races for three-year-olds only. One of the tricks of the Triple Crown is that each of the races demands a different kind of horse. Barclay Tagg had told me that if it weren't for the owners, he wouldn't have even sent Funny Cide to Kentucky. Owners want their horse in the Kentucky Derby. That's why you own horses. Owning horses at all gets you into a pretty good club. Even a small stake in a syndicate will get you an owner's license that, if properly displayed, can get you whisked off to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, and the air doesn't get much rarer than that, except perhaps when you're at Churchill Downs, and one of your horses is in the Derby.
But Tagg had told me that Funny Cide was a horse for the Preakness: "If I was smart I wouldn't even go to the Derby. He's a Preakness horse. He's going to love Pimlico."
And he did. Empire Maker was out with a bruised foot, resting up until the Belmont Stakes. Funny Cide crushed the short field and won it opening up daylight and looking like a champ.
So by the time we got to Belmont, the stakes were high. There were still those who believed that Funny Cide did not deserve to be placed among the few brilliant horses that had taken the Triple Crown. He was no Citation, they said, he was no War Admiral. Of course they were right, but he didn't have to be that good. All he had to do was win the Belmont Stakes.
The Belmont Stakes is the most difficult race in America. At a mile and a half, it is longer than any American three-year-old horse runs over dirt. The clubhouse turn at Belmont is very rarely used, because the track is so long that you can run most distances without rounding it. The sand is deep there. The turns are long, sweeping things. The backstretch is like the coast of Florida: endless sand. It's difficult for jockeys to run a mile and half, because their mental clocks-the little thing in their heads that knows that the pole they just flew by at forty miles per hour represented a quarter-mile left in the race, and now is the time to move-they've got to set that clock to daylight savings in order to time the Stakes properly. To run a good race in the Belmont Stakes would be hard even if a horse were running it alone. But of course there's plenty of competition.
Still, it's only one race. It's only two and half minutes.
Belmont Park was bursting at the seams. 101,864 people were there to see Funny Cide take his shot. I was up in the third-deck grandstand seats. It's my favorite spot at Belmont, up in the cheap seats about halfway down the stretch. I've sat everywhere there is to sit at Belmont. I've sat in owner's boxes, I've sat at the restaurant, I've covered every inch of the rail. I've watched from the press box. I prefer the grandstand side of the rail, always, and the nosebleed grandstand seats. What you get up there is an incredible sense of the stretch run. It's very long (1,097 feet). You watch the horses come out of the turn, and they all make their run, and you watch them fight for it. Halfway down the stretch they reach where you're sitting. You turn your head and realize that while you thought they were almost there, they are only halfway done with the battle. It gives you a great sense of the what's special about Belmont: the size of the place.
Belmont typically feels big in the way an airport feels big when no one is traveling. Maybe there are some people hustling through the hush in the distance, but you could be alone somewhere if you wanted to be. Most of the year, Belmont is a good place for a quiet picnic.
But a big race day is different. People are everywhere. Beer is flowing. Hats are being sold. The betting lines are long. At Belmont, tickets to get into the biggest race of the year are still only two dollars. And the crowd is filled with people who may see one race a year. Or this might be the only race they'll ever see.
On that early June day in 2003, it began raining at 9:15 in the morning. By the time the stakes came around, everyone was soaked. The track was a mess.
But more than a hundred thousand people now look at their program and realized that the time has come. The next race on the card is the big one. The mood is charged. People find their spots. Everyone starts talking loudly.
In the grey, the mounted police take to the field, pretending they are giving some kind of a show and getting cheered as if they are. The brass band marches into the infield. A very drunk man sits down next to me, thanks me, and then gets up and leaves. The band plays "New York, New York."
Excerpted from RACE DAY by MAX WATMAN Copyright © 2005 by Max Watman.
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Meet the Author
Max Watman is the regular turf correspondent for the New York Sun and has written about horse racing for the New York Times and the New York City OTB. His work has also appeared in Harper's, the Wall Street Journal, and Parnassus. Mr. Watman is also the fiction chronicler for The New Criterion and an editor of the Nebraska Review. He was raised in the mountains of Virginia and now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.
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