Saratoga racetrack has been in business for 115 years, and its patrons know horses. They watch them taking hesitant, green steps as 2-year-olds and then follow their development. Good horses return to Saratoga either as very talented 3-year-olds or as established 4-year-olds to run in a handicap race called the Whitney. By Saratoga's standards the Whitney, being just 51 years old, is only a pup. Its roll of winners, however, matches that of any race anywhere: Equipoise, Discovery, War Admiral, Tom Fool, Kelso, Carry Back, Gun Bow, Dr. Fager, Stymie, Ancient Title. In recent years Forego and Secretariat ran in the Whitney and lost. Through those 51 years only 10 runners have ever won the Whitney as 3-year-olds, but Alydar topped them all last Saturday.
When a 3-year-old competes in the Whitney he normally takes on light weight or else gets smothered by a more experienced horse that has been racing against older horses. Alydar carried 123 pounds in last Saturday's Whitney, meaning that on racing's scale of weights he was giving pounds away to some older horses. But that was only part of the story.
Saratoga reserves its affections for special horses. Native Dancer was one, Tom Fool another. Secretariat had 9,000 people waiting at the backstretch gate when he arrived by van from Belmont Park in his Triple Crown year of 1973, and last year when Forego appeared at the old track in upstate New York a crowd of 29,000 showed up in teeming rain just to wish him well.
People who attend the races at Saratoga are creatures of tradition. They don't need, expect or want rock bands in the paddock or giveaway programs or in-house television sets babbling away throughout the afternoon. Before every race the horses are saddled under elm trees, each tree bearing a number corresponding to the one on the mount's saddlecloth. When Alydar was led from his barn on the backstretch for the Whitney, nearly 1,500 people had already gathered in a huge circle around the tree bearing his number.
Wisely, it was decided not to saddle Alydar by the tree because the throng was growing every moment. When he paraded to the post, the largest Whitney crowd in history, 31,034, applauded him. The noise started in the grandstand, moved down the track and into the clumps of fans in the infield. Then it stopped. Suddenly. The crowd was apprehensive. Was it giving its affection away too easily? Was Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in the Triple Crown races, just another runner-up?
The field he was facing was good, if not superior. Alydar's eight opponents had won 27 stakes races, and it is difficult for a 3-year-old to give away weight in August. Saratoga's reputation as "the graveyard of favorites" has been justly earned.
Alydar was facing four interesting opponents. J. O. Tobin, carrying 128 pounds, was the most impressive because he had won races in England, California and New York and gained a reputation as one of the quickest horses anywhere. J. O. Tobin is trained by Laz Barrera, the man who trains Affirmed. Buckaroo, the only other 3-year-old in the race, was given a chance because his recent form had been excellent and he was getting 11 pounds from Alydar. True Statement and Nearly On Time also presented fairly impressive credentials: True Statement had won major stakes at Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska, and Nearly On Time was the winner of the 1977 Whitney.
In the days preceding the race there was no doubt that Trainer John Veitch was nervous about Alydar giving weight to older horses. "I thought about going to Monmouth Park and running Alydar against 3-year-olds for $100,000 in the Invitational there," he said, "but I want to get a race over this track for Alydar before he faces Affirmed in the Travers [Aug. 19]. I'm aware that some people think I'm making the wrong move by running against older horses before running against Affirmed. But I believe Alydar is an excellent horse and the people at Saratoga should see him.
"Alydar has stood up throughout a long campaign. He's been running and winning since February. Even after his race with Affirmed in the Belmont he showed no bad signs. Two days after the Belmont he seemed full of himself and ready to go again. People thought he might have lost his confidence by losing the Triple Crown races, but I never thought so. Neither did he. He went out to Arlington Park and won the Classic there by 13 lengths. He drew a big crowd and the fans liked him. Alydar has won four $100,000 races this year, and how many horses do that in any year? I don't think it's silly to start him against older horses. A trainer has a responsibility to prove that his horse is good. I'm more confident and convinced about Alydar now than ever before."
Veitch's prerace instructions to Jockey Jorge Velasquez were simple: "Be careful of J. O. Tobin at the break because he sometimes does strange things. Let him get the lead, but if you can get inside him in the stretch, do it. He tends to drift wide and there might be some room there. If we have to go by him on the outside, he could force Alydar too wide. Georgie, just do what you have to do."