Major Odom was pacing. Arms akimbo and straw hat cocked, an unlit stogie stuck in a corner of his mouth, the 81-year-old trainer walked back and forth in the shadows of the elm trees in the Saratoga paddock. "Where the hell's my horse?" he said to no one in particular, his bushy gray eyebrows jumping up and down. Odom's given name is George, but no one ever calls him anything but Major. When he spoke, heads turned, looking for the missing filly. All the others had arrived in the saddling enclosure for the sixth race at Saratoga last Aug. 15, but there was no sign of Waggley. All at once, around a corner, she appeared, gliding across the paddock toward Odom, expanding in the light—a big, fine-boned gray filly with baby-seal eyes and a chorus girl's walk. Odom watched Waggley approach, then drew his hand across her back. "A little wet," he said. "Did she come over all right?"
"Didn't make a move," said her groom. Odom huddled with his jockey, Jean-Luc Samyn, reminding the rider that this race was a 6½-furlong sprint—half a furlong farther than Waggley really wanted to go—and that his filly would be breaking from the nine post, on the far outside: "She likes the outside, Jean, but you got a long way to go. But I think she's good, and she's training good, Just use your judgment."
Odom pushed through the shirt-sleeved crowd outside the paddock gate. A voice called out, "Good luck, Mr. Odom."
"That's what we need!" the old man said.
For folks born so blessed as Odom—and even for those with less luck—Saratoga is as close to God's heaven as one can get in the horse racing game. Santa Anita has its San Gabriel Mountains, Hialeah its flamingos and palms, and Belmont Park its style and elegance, but only Saratoga offers the 19th century. On Aug. 3, 1863, a filly called Lizzie W. won the first horse race ever run at Saratoga; this year, Aug. 3 was opening day for the track and the 125th anniversary of Lizzie W.
's victory. Saratoga is not only the oldest race meeting in the country but, after years of slumping handle and attendance, it has emerged as one of the most prosperous and popular venues in American racing—rich in tradition, money and history.
Red Smith's standard directions for getting to the track still work: From New York City, you drive north on the Thruway for about 175 miles, turn off at Exit 14, take Union Avenue heading west—and go back about 100 years. The racetrack is right there on the left, just beyond the old wrought-iron fence, past the picnic tables and the white-fenced paddock, just beyond the high wooden beams and peppermint-striped awnings that adorn the clubhouse and grandstand. Last summer, no one fit more comfortably into the old-time decor than Major Odom.
Odom first came to Saratoga Springs way back in '08, when he was two years old. His dad, George Sr., was a Hall of Fame rider who turned to training when he quit the saddle. As a boy, the Major rode his father's stable pony around town over rutted dusty streets on blazing August days. He would gallop the pony in and out among the tasseled surreys and parasols, the plumed hats and the derbies that paraded the streets. He would ride up past the two big hotels, the Grand Union and the United States, in the middle of town; down past the big Victorian houses that squatted along Union Avenue and North Broadway.
Odom could hear the train whistles in the night. He saw the arrival of the racehorses at the Spa, watched men opening the sliding boxcar doors and unloading the animals, one by one. He watched as the horses walked the mile to the track, manes blowing, while grooms held fast to the shanks tethered to the halter rings. All the big horses came to Saratoga that way, heels clicking down the boxcar ramps and stepping off through town: Man o' War and Exterminator, Gallant Fox and Discovery, Top Flight and Equipoise. He saw Upset beat Man o' War, Jim Dandy whip Gallant Fox; he saw the birth of the Graveyard of Favorites, which is what horsemen still call Saratoga.
"I saw 'em," Major Odom said. Saw 'em all at Saratoga, saw all the big guns that came through town; heard the whips snapping and the irons clanging and the distant pounding of hooves: Native Dancer and Nashua, Kelso and Forego, Ruffian, Secretariat, Damascus and Buckpasser, Alydar and Affirmed, Ridan and Jaipur. Trained a lot of winners at Saratoga himself, Major Odom did, back in the glory days.
"I won the Spinaway Stakes three years in a row," he said of the streak he put together from 1945 to '47 in Saratoga's premier race for 2-year-old fillies. "And I won a Travers here [in 1947] with Young Peter, but that was way back.... I like the old days, but then, I'm old myself. I still miss the casinos. In the 1930s and '40s, people would watch the races here and then go home, rest up, put on a tuxedo and go to the casinos down by the lake to gamble. Play roulette and dice and dance all night! The horses always liked it up here, too. They perked right up; it's the air and the water. The water's just as cold and clear as it can be. Delicious! The horses are happier here. So are the people. Lots of good times. Yeah, I used to win a lot of races here."