When Saratoga wound up its traditional 24-day meeting last week, it marked the conclusion of a rather sprightly as well as history-making season at the old Spa track in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Records were set in attendance (453,466), one-day attendance (32,568) and mutuel handle ($40,444,871), and no doubt in the number of unfortunates shut out in the betting lines because of too few windows—or too many wagerers.
Sunday racing, off to a slow start during the first week's stifling heat (only 13,841 turned out), ultimately proved to be better attended than Tuesdays, for example, and the total for the three Sundays was 58,334. The weather went from very hot to very wet to just about perfect last weekend, when the 2-year-olds strutted their stuff in the Spinaway and the Hopeful.
But from opening to closing day Saratoga gave its customers some surprises. With few exceptions it could be called the meeting of nonchampions. Forego was on hand to train but not to race, as was the Belmont Stakes winner, Avatar. The champion older mare, Susan's Girl, took her business to Delaware Park. Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was being readied for the 106th Travers, in which he was to face the West Coast invader Forceten in what should have been the best race of the whole summer. What happened? The day before the race Trainer LeRoy Jolley failed to enter Foolish Pleasure because, in his opinion, the hard-raced colt hadn't trained up to expectation. And after Forceten sustained a minor injury on Travers day, the 10-furlong test became a walkover for Wajima, the $600,000 Bold Ruler colt who on that day probably would have beaten both Foolish Pleasure and Force-ten anyway.
But Saratoga racegoers have come to realize that the sport takes its toll of early-season heroes. Of the 15 Kentucky Derby starters, just two made it to the Travers, Media and Prince Thou Art (his last name should be changed to Ain't), who were fifth and sixth at Churchill Downs. They took home minor checks for placing second and third behind Wajima, who had been brought up to top form by 41-year-old Trainer Steve DiMauro. (The Travers lacked Preakness winner Master Derby and Diabolo as well as Foolish Pleasure.)
But the absence of the more familiar 3-year-olds only partially diminished the quality of the racing, which at Saratoga has never been run-of-the-mill. From California, in addition to Forceten, who won a thrilling Jim Dandy before his defection from the Travers, came the 5-year-old gelding Ancient Title to win a very exciting Whitney on the first of the four Saturdays. And with Ruffian lying in her grave at Belmont Park, the Alabama for 3-year-old fillies went to Elmendorf's Spout ($32.80). It remained for a 4-year-old filly named Life's Illusion to show up her older male rivals and win both of Saratoga's time-honored steeplechase stakes.
The last weekend has always belonged to the fresh crop of 2-year-olds, who are expected to make 3-year-old history next spring and summer. On the distaff side a genuine champion was to be seen when Dearly Precious (now 7 for 8) took a one-length decision over Optimistic Gal in the six-furlong Spinaway. Last August, when Ruffian won her Spinaway, it was suggested on more than one Saratoga bar-stool that she could beat anything in that year's split Hopeful, including a tenacious sort of colt named Foolish Pleasure. So much for this kind of suggestion, thank you.
The Hopeful was split again this year, and although it made for interesting racing (and betting), the absence of probably five of the best 2-year-olds in the country reduced the two halves of the Hopeful into wishful thinking for the winners and better-luck-next-time for the losers. The first division went to a Jacinto colt by the name of Jackknife, who had started in only one other race in his life and won that one easily. This time, after following the pace set by Whats-your pleasure, Jackknife cut to the inside on the turn for home and won going away by nearly three lengths over Ferrous. Jackknife was the favorite and he ran like a very nice colt should. And why shouldn't he? He is one more of a long, long list of winning horses bred by Max Gluck, former ambassador to Ceylon, at his Elmendorf Farm in Kentucky. Few stables in modern U.S. history have managed, year in and year out, to produce more consistent top runners in every division and of both sexes than Gluck and his racing manager, Bob Bricken. "I never cease to be thrilled by what my horses jump up and do," says Gluck with a disarming smile.
What this one jumped up and did was recover from bucked shins in April and make all the right moves for Trainer Johnny Campo, who is only one of several Elmendorf trainers. (Two weeks before the Hopeful it was Lefty Nickerson who trained Spout to win the Alabama for Gluck.) The ambassador and Bricken are thinking of the Futurity at Belmont on Sept. 6 as the next start for Jackknife, who covered his 6� furlongs in 1:16[3/5] after being hit a couple of times by Jockey Jean Cruguet when he had taken the lead and was safely on the way home.
An hour after Jackknife did his number as the 2-to-1 favorite, the crowd sent Peter Kissel's Iron Bit off as the 4-to-5 choice in the Hopeful finale. He led all the way only to get nipped by a nose by Gene Cashman's Eustace, a 9-to-1 shot who turned the event into a two-horse race from the start. But the story of this race isn't so much what happened after the nine-horse field got out of the gate as what happened inside the gate before it opened. After Iron Bit was loaded, he broke his half-cup slit blinkers, and the gate crew—with no alternative at that point—equipped him with full-cup blinkers, with which he was totally unfamiliar. Kissel and Trainer Eddie Yowell (the same team that had Iron Ruler, Executioner and Pass Catcher) figured that if Iron Bit hadn't been wearing full cups he would never have given up the lead in the final stride.
Maybe so, maybe not, and maybe the fall races will tell. The Hopeful was the first stakes for the juveniles at 6� furlongs, and Eustace proved he can handle that just fine. The time for this Delta Judge colt was a fifth of a second faster than Jackknife's clocking, and the pair of them were more than seven lengths in front of the third horse in the race, Gentle King.