At best, you only have a handful of opportunities left to watch the first Triple Crown winner in decades run. One of those opportunities is today, in the Travers—a Grade I race often called the Midsummer’s Derby, with all the mystique and greatness that name entails.
American Pharoah will meet some good horses this afternoon at Saratoga. Frosted, one of the horses considered most likely to spoil his bid for glory in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Texas Red, a stakes winner at Saratoga and the winner of last year’s championship 2-year-old race.
And a 50-1 shot George Weaver has entered on the back of just one winning race.
His name is Mid Ocean, and he ran five times before he even saw the winner’s circle. When he did, it wasn’t at Churchill Downs or Saratoga—it was at Delaware Park, a working man’s track in Wilmington. It mostly survives on the back of slot money, a substitute for a public that less and less is caught up in the magic of finding out whose horse is faster.
Who knows why he’s here? The trainer of another long-shot in another big race today—the King’s Bishop, worth $500,000—told my favorite racing rag, “I can give you 500,000 reasons why we’re taking a shot.”
Mid Ocean has 1.25 million reasons to take on the big horse.
A few years ago, tape recorder in my back pocket and a camera over my shoulder, I hoofed it over to Larry Jones’ barn to look at another big horse at Saratoga.
Larry Jones is a big man who wears a Stetson and fringed chaps, even amongst the blue-blooded snobbery of Saratoga. He had brought with him a filly named Havre de Grace.
She had already won almost every important filly-and-mare race on the books. Now, she was coming to Saratoga to take on the boys in the Grade I Woodward, one of the most important races of the year for older horses.
Like most days at Saratoga, my feet were burning in my sandy loafers. I had been up since five, walking from barn to barn trying to cobble together a story. I was hitting a new record for words written in a day every day, but I was living on sunflower seeds and coffee.
Then I saw Larry Jones, standing with Havre de Grace on a loose shank. Standing there looking at her was Bill Mott.
Bill Mott is maybe the greatest living trainer in America. Taciturn and seemingly unflappable, he is the kind of horseman that other horsemen talk about with reverence. He has prepared the horses that people gather to see—like Cigar, who in 1995 and 1996 won 16 races in a row, tying a 45-year-old record.
And he came to see Havre de Grace, the day before she went out to be tested against the boys. To look at her, to see with his own eyes, again, what a great horse looks like.
American Pharoah isn't just any great horse. It's hard to explain what it is about a horse that wins the Triple Crown to someone who hasn't waited like a kid before Christmas every year, for his whole life, to see one.
Or maybe it's not. Fifteen thousand people gathered on the rail at Saratoga yesterday morning to watch American Pharoah take his morning constitutional. He winged around the track with ears pricked, shading off ground with every mammoth stride while the crowd roared.
I would give every penny in my bank account to have grit in my shoes and too much coffee in my belly, to have my eyes burning from too little sleep, contacts that have been in too long, to have nothing but a sweaty five-dollar bill in my back pocket for a greasy sandwich—but to be on that rail to watch a great horse the morning before he runs.
There is a unique anticipation in waiting for a great horse to run, a shivering excitement in your belly, worse than waiting for your first date in high school. It’s a kind of chimeric agony—it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what you feel, because the moment you do, it slips out from under your thumb like mercury.
One of those feelings is fear. So few horses are truly great. So many disappoint you. So many are great and go to the post for one more race, only to be beat like Secretariat by the long-shot Onion, or Cigar by Dare And Go.
American Pharoah could lose this afternoon. The only Triple Crown winner since 1978 could lose—to Frosted, to Texas Red.
To Mid Ocean, the maiden winner with enough gall to throw his hat into a $1.25-million ring.
Or, he could do what Havre de Grace did: Duel with a fierce opponent all the way down the stretch and only in the shadow of the wire on the back of nothing but guts and glory, demand her nose in front and make at least one rookie reporter on the rail cry.
How could you miss that?
Post time is 5:46PM. NBC will be broadcasting the race from 4PM to 6PM.
DC friends: I’ll be on my couch with beer betting all afternoon. Come by.
To all my racing friends: If you haven’t read Sean Clancy’s column this morning, you’re reading the wrong love song to racing right now.