A Requiem for a Different Saratoga Meet

Every once in a while, maybe every few years, I go out to dinner and have a weird internal dialogue with my subconscious. The last time I can remember this happening before Monday night was the week of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. In addition to being the lone social media person for TVG at the time, the company was rebranding HRTV into TVG2, which meant redesigning what was then HRTV.com to fit the new brand, all while staying on top of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during one of the four busiest weeks of the year.

That Thursday, I came into work at 6 a.m. and watched the sun rise on one side of the Howard Hughes Center. I left at about 8 p.m. after watching it set on the other side, and the first place of repute open on my way back to my then-apartment in Pasadena was a Denny’s in Culver City. I was running on fumes at that point, and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out during that weekend’s TVG Extra broadcast (visions of overtime money danced in my head!).

My present-day corner of the world has a dimly lit dive bar next door. It’s called Vinnie’s, and after two long days of work Sunday and Monday, I wound up there as a local band was doing a sound check for a 10 p.m. set. The food isn’t fantastic, but it’s solid, cheap, and, most importantly to me on this particular evening, someone other than me was preparing it.

The best way I can describe Vinnie’s is this: Picture Sister Margaret’s, the bar in the “Deadpool” movies. It’s dark, to the point of being gloomy, and there’s sometimes strange stuff going on (on this particular evening, several people were shooting dice on the bar and sending the same $1 bill back and forth). It’s popular with bikers, but not the ones you need to be afraid of (think of the One-Eyed Snakes from “Bob’s Burgers,” in that they look menacing but are mostly harmless).

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I thought this was a horse racing column.” I’m getting there. The reason I was so winded tonight is because the 2018 Saratoga meet has come to a close after 40 cards of racing in upstate New York. It took me a little while to realize it, but I wound up at Vinnie’s for a reason. It’s a different kind of place, and this year’s Saratoga stand was a different sort of meet.

Sure, at its peak, it had the great racing Saratoga is known for. The meet hosted slam-dunk Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl, who cruised to victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Top sprinter Imperial Hint ran roughshod over the field in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. Fast-rising Marley’s Freedom galloped home much the best in the Grade 1 Ballerina for Red Jacket honoree Bob Baffert. Fans saw Saratoga County native Chad Brown set a single-season record for wins by a trainer, and were treated to a rousing rendition of the Travers, which found a way to stand out even without Triple Crown winner Justify (thanks, Catholic Boy).

There were certainly highlights, ones Saratoga produces every single year, and by the numbers, the track saw its second-highest all-sources handle in history. However, there were some bumps along the way. The first 20 days of the meet saw nearly 10 inches of rain drench the Saratoga area, and 50 races were rained off the turf. From a handicapping perspective, that often meant having to look at races twice, just in case the skies happened to open up.

There was also the infamous race run at the wrong distance. When Somelikeithotbrown waltzed home to break his maiden, it was going a mile and an eighth, not the race’s intended route of a mile and a sixteenth. Additionally, there were a few late scratches of horses entered as parts of entries, which meant that the remaining horses in those entries ran for purse money only and were not eligible betting interests. The worst-case scenario in that instance happened in one day’s opener, when half of a Joe Sharp-trained entry was ruled out and the other half won as much the best. Bettors who liked that part of the entry and bet accordingly got nothing for having a correct opinion, which is a situation that must be avoided at all possible times.

For me, this meet was weird in other ways, too. I started writing for The Saratogian in 2012, and stayed on as a seasonal freelancer after leaving for California in late-2013. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes at the newspaper. My two primary supervisors, managing editor Barbara Lombardo and sports editor Kevin Moran, took buyouts in 2015. David Johnson, who assumed Kevin’s post after his departure, left following the 2017 meet. This summer, the paper’s full-time sports staff consisted of two people: Editor Joe Boyle, whose primary job was to produce regular sports sections for both The Saratogian and The Troy Record, and Stan Hudy, who took the lead on producing The Pink Sheet. Compare that with the staff I walked into in 2012, which boasted a sports editor (Kevin), several full-time reporters (myself, David, Stan, Alex Ventre, and eventually Mike Cignoli), a few freelancers (Jeff Scott, who still contributes, and the great Mike Veitch, who retired last year), two clerks (Chris Maley and Tyler Michaud), and a dedicated sports paginator/copy editor (first Matt Donato, and then Ryan Hayner).

Even with a full staff, producing two sections a day for seven weeks is not easy (DRF colleague and former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo can back me up on that!). The realities of journalism are such that editors and reporters must do more with less on a constant basis. Joe and Stan put forth herculean efforts to get the paper(s) out as scheduled, and while I thanked Stan in my final bankroll blurb of the season, it’s worth doing so again here, in an area where I’ve got a bit more room to express myself. Thanks, Stan. Hopefully, I never held anything up!

From a handicapping standpoint, the meet was its own kind of difficult. Saratoga is always hard. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that three wins per day is an admirable pace, and that 120 winners (three a day for 40 days) will yield a solid placing amongst other handicappers of that ilk. When I somehow came out on top amongst all print handicappers in 2017, I did so with 128 top-pick winners. John Shapazian, who won the crown this year, had 123. As I recall, one or two others were in the 115-120 range.

This year, Shapazian had 116 winners. Liam Durbin, who regained the Pink Sheet title, had 109. I had 108, and as far as I can tell, that was good for a clear third (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are incredibly low numbers compared to the ones that are usually needed to win, but that’s how hard this year’s meet was.

Put in other ways, consider a few of these facts: Talented but little-known trainers Chuck Lawrence, Gary Contessa, and Greg Sacco all won more Grade 1 races (one apiece) than longtime Saratoga maestro/future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher (zero). Mark Casse, one of North America’s most respected horsemen, suffered through an ugly 0 for 48 streak at the Spa that ended when Fly Away Birdie came running late in the Labor Day opener. Gary Sciacca saw Casse’s streak and raised it 21 more, to 0 for 69 (special thanks to DRF’s David Grening for his note on the specific number). He hadn’t won a race at the Spa since 2016, but the drought ended when Sicilia Mike romped in Monday’s seventh race. Paraphrasing an Andy Serling remark from early in the meet, you’re nobody until you get crushed at Saratoga, and this year, the bakeries making humble pie did incredible business.

I look forward to Saratoga every year. I grew up going there every summer, getting autographs from jockeys, listening to Tom Durkin, and learning how to read the publication I’d eventually work for. There are changes every summer. More people I’ve rubbed shoulders with leave the business, for one reason or another. Durkin retired after the 2014 meet. Many people that populated the press box in 2012 and 2013 no longer work for those employers, and a few, unfortunately, have passed away (Paul Moran, Mike Jarboe, Matt Graves, and John Mazzie are all missed). We’re already preparing for one additional change that’s coming sooner rather than later, as longtime NYRA bugler Sam Grossman’s last day of work came and went Monday afternoon.

Saratoga provides a rush to be able to test my skills against other handicappers (for my money, some of the best ones around). As an incredibly competitive person drawn to horse racing not by fashion or Instagram photos, but by the very nature of pari-mutuel wagering (my money against yours), that’s always been something I value. Having said that, it’s also an incredible honor to produce content others can use as a tool to make some money, and that’s the primary reason I love doing what I’m privileged to do for seven weeks out of the year.

Personally, there are years where the Saratoga meet means something bigger. 2013’s meet was my way of burying myself in work to keep my mind off of other things in my life. 2017’s meet was about me proving several high-level doubters dead wrong, and I remain proud to say that that’s what I did (you can blame those doubters for me going into wrestling promo mode at times over the past year; if you find me, ask and I’ll tell you the story).

This summer wasn’t quite like that. It was an endurance test, handicapping’s version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where hitting the wire brought with it its own special sense of relief (and, for a privileged few, some sense of accomplishment). It was a summer where a lot of creatures, both human and equine, had to navigate around situations that were far from ideal. To those that did: Congratulations. You made it.

God willing, I’ll see you all next year. I’ve got a title to get back!

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