Spa Diary: May it be ever thus

by | Sep 8, 2016 | Breaking, Features, Opinion, Racing, Regionwide, Top Stories | 5 comments

Once again this year, Teresa Genaro will share with us stories of some of the mid-Atlantic people and horses who make their way up to Saratoga in her Spa Diary.

by Teresa Genaro

The final first of Saratoga 2016 was not one that we looked forward to.

This summer, we celebrated pinhooker Andrew Motion’s first Saratoga yearling sale, and trainer Ray Handal’s first Saratoga win, and trainer Lacey Gaudet’s first Saratoga starter.

And then we waited. Not for a first, but for a next, to see if trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s 46-year winning streak at the Spa would remain intact.

The English trainer with a Pennsylvania farm had won at Saratoga every year since 1969. In a 2010 conversation with me, he wondered whether his was the longest extant streak, and in the six years since it was publicized, his record has attracted attention every summer, with fans and reporters on Sheppard watch from opening day.

He has admitted that he feels pressure to keep the streak going, a feeling that is in conflict with the reduction in his stable and the number of horses that he starts. Sheppard horses ran 14 times at Saratoga this year, down by 50% over the last two years, 29 last year, 35 in 2014. There were fewer steeplechase races at Saratoga this year, too, and Sheppard didn’t have a runner in this year’s New York Turf Writers’ Cup (gr. I), a race that he’s won 14 times, and in which he’s had a runner every year going back to at least 1988, and probably further.

He kept our hope alive until the very last race on the very last day, his final start of the meet coming in the 11th race on closing day. War Baby finished seventh, and in front of a nearly empty grandstand as dusk descended, Sheppard was gracious enough to talk to reporters in the winner’s circle, as an era came to an end.

When we return to Saratoga every summer, we look to see what has changed, and what has remained the same. We applaud upgrades, unless we see them as violating Saratoga’s essential spirit—a spirit that each of us defines for ourselves—in which case we criticize them. We want to go back every year and experience what made us fall in love with the place, and maybe the sport itself, in the first place, even as we seek, or demand, a Saratoga that suits a 2016 customer.

Jonathan Sheppard’s streak might be retired, but perhaps we ushered in a new one, with Chad Brown winning his first Saratoga training title, ending Todd Pletcher’s five-year run atop the standings, setting a new record for Spa wins in the process. Jockey José Ortiz won his first Saratoga riding title.

In The Track at Saratoga: America’s Grandest Race Course, architectural consultant and former New York Racing Association consultant Paul Roberts observed that Saratoga has always changed: to accommodate cars, to modernize its wagering, to expand seating. Over the next 10 years, we are likely to see significant changes at the 152-year-old track: new buildings built, others re-purposed. Trainers and jockeys we admire will retire, while new ones will ascend the ranks. There will be firsts, and there will be lasts. We will rejoice, we will complain, we will mourn. And for as long as we can, we will go back.

As the Saratoga meeting opened a century ago, Richard T. Wilson, the president of the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses, the organization that owned the Spa track from 1865 until 1955, said to the New York Times, “This has always been a meeting place for those who love a good horse, and all such consider the season incomplete without a visit of a week or more.”

As we bid adieu to Saratoga 2016, filing away our memories and our disappointments, the moments when we exulted and when we grumbled, we can only hope: may it be ever thus.

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