On Feb. 21, 1986, Fearless Queen gave birth to a daughter. The mare did not die, and the baby was not crooked. In fact, she was a beauty, and she started Little to dreaming. For 19 years he had brought those royally bred New-stead yearlings to Saratoga, which was fine enough, but he had always wanted to fetch a yearling of his own to the Spa. Now was his chance. If the filly was relatively weak on pedigree, she more than made up for it in looks, and so he entered her in the Saratoga sale. When Fasig-Tipton selected her—not just any thoroughbred yearling can be entered in the sale—Little started shining up his filly for the big night.
Many prospective buyers came by to see her, among them D. Wayne Lukas, whose eye for yearlings had already helped make him the most successful horse trainer in the country. After looking her over on the morning of the sale, Lukas said to Little, quietly, "A beautiful filly."
Little did not know what to expect when she walked into the ring. Standing in front of her stall, with a chaw of Red Man in his mouth, the man was dreaming again. "She could bring $100,000," Little said. "Then again, she could bring $25,000. Or $150,000. You never know till you sell 'em. No matter what she sells for, I've still got the mare. And she's back in foal to Dixieland Band."
Marvin Little laughed thinking about it. "I'm an old hillbilly from the back hills of Kentucky," he said. "You better believe I'm the poorest man selling a horse in this sale. But that's what made America great. I paid $58,000 for the mare in foal. I think this filly's gonna bring what I paid for the mare carrying her." He paused. "I hope," he said.
The handler led the chestnut filly into the sales ring, and the bidding rose up like a child's balloon into the night sky—beginning at $20,000, slowly, and then rising higher and faster, past $50,000 and $100,000 and $125,000, then over $150,000 and $160,000. Little held his breath; his eyes were popping. Lukas made the final bid: The auctioneer brought the hammer down at $185,000.
"What do ya think of that?" Little crowed back at the barn. "A hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars! That's makin' money, ain't it? And I still got the mare! I don't know what I'll do with all that money. I'll probably take some of it and buy another mare."
Of course, the nature of the gambling beast changes dramatically as you move from the sales ring at Fasig-Tipton to the betting windows of the racetrack across the street. Because of the illustrious names of the high rollers who have played the horses here, Saratoga has spawned more tales of truly epic gambling than any racetrack in America.
One afternoon 86 years ago, before the advent of income tax, John (Bet-a-Million) Gates, the barbed-wire baron, lost a staggering $400,000 playing the horses at Saratoga. On another day, according to Saratoga historian George Waller, Gates won so much money on a single bet that he used a grocery basket to carry his cash away. Old-time gamblers still recall the day in the late 1930s when Art Rooney, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, all but swept the card at Saratoga and took a fortune from the track. Over the years, whenever he has been asked about that day, Rooney has steadfastly refused to discuss it.
"Art Rooney won six straight races here and walked out of the betting ring with $105,000," says Halpern, who made book at Saratoga at the time. "I know. I took some of the action."
And then there was Subway Sam Rosoff, the builder of much of the New York City subway system, who played the horses and the bon vivant with equal passion at Saratoga. "Rosoff always rented a house with an open porch on Union Avenue across from the racetrack," says Halpern. "He would leave the track after the fifth race. When the public walked by his house after the races, there was Subway Sam on his porch, with half a dozen beautiful showgirls, having cocktails served by a butler. A lot of people copied that scene on Union Avenue over the years. That's what made Saratoga such a memorable place."