05/30/2012 3:54PM

Emerald Downs: Meeking ready for more history


AUBURN, Wash. – Bob Meeking has been saddling horses since the year 1947 BC – Before Citation – in a rollicking training career spanning parts of eight decades. Still going strong at 83, he has been witness to four Triple Crown winners since taking out his first trainer’s license. He would like nothing more than to see I’ll Have Another make it five with a victory a week from Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

Meeking said he will depart from his usual routine to watch the big race. While others crowd into the grandstand, Meeking said he will retreat to his living quarters on the Emerald Downs backstretch, turn on his television and close the door on the world outside. He wants to hear the race as much as see it, to wake the echoes of a day shortly after his 20th birthday when he huddled by a radio and listened as Citation swept to victory at Belmont Park.

Yes, Meeking has been training horses since before television. It would be hard to say how many races he has won, since official records date back only to the 1970s. He says that’s one of the benefits of growing old, because, he says with a laugh, “I can lie to you profusely now, because you can’t check it.”

For every victory, real or fabricated, Meeking has picked up a story or two. He’s rich with West Coast racing knowledge, and many of his friends and colleagues have made history over the years in pursuit of the Triple Crown. He even has a casual connection to I’ll Have Another, having enlisted the colt’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, to ride horses for him at Hastings .

“That kid can ride,” Meeking said. “He rode a couple for me in Vancouver, so I have a rooting interest. The pressure on him must be unbelievable. To be cool and ride a mile and a half . . . the horse looks like he’ll run the mile and a half. He looks like he’ll run all day.”

“I would give my right arm for that horse to win it,” Meeking said. “I really think a Triple Crown winner would stimulate racing, stimulate horse bettors and horse owners. We need that. Every business does, of course. I’m very impressed with the horse. His style of running is sensational.”

Meeking was raised on Vancouver Island, about 25,000 furlongs from the East Coast racing centers, yet two of his contemporaries from that remote outpost went on to train classic winners in Kentucky.

“A good friend of mine, [David] Clive Cross, won the Derby with Sunny’s Halo,” Meeking said. “We lived within about two blocks of each other near the old Willows racetrack in Victoria. And Eddie Hayward won it with Dark Star, and he was born there, too. It’s hard to believe, an island with so little racing would end up with two Derby winners.”

Meeking began his training career at Landsdowne Park outside Vancouver. Before long, he was traveling the West Coast circuit, Vancouver and Seattle in the summer, California in the winter. He was in the Bay Area in 1950 when a shipment of horses from Calumet Farm arrived at Golden Gate Fields. Citation, past his prime but still a national treasure, was among them.

“Citation by then was over the hill and had an ankle and other injuries he was racing through, but people would drive in from everywhere to see him run,” Meeking said. “He ran against the English horse, Noor, and lost two or three in a row. Calumet had all their best horses there. It wasn’t just Citation – they had an unlimited supply of great horses.”

Twenty-five years elapsed between Citation’s victory at Belmont and Secretariat’s Triple Crown in 1973. Seattle Slew turned the trick four years later – and lured a record crowd to Longacres for a celebratory gallop later that summer – and Affirmed came along in 1978. Meeking had spent the previous winter at Santa Anita, and Affirmed’s trainer, Laz Barrera, was one of his running mates.

“Barrera was a friend of mine,” Meeking said. “We’d go to the races together. I saw Affirmed as a 2-year-old, and the Derby was already in the offing for him. Laz was really a personality and a great guy, on top of being a fantastic trainer.”

Much water has passed under the bridge since 1978. Meeking has had some good years and some lean ones. He saddled only three winners in 1978; Affirmed won that many in five weeks. But now, 34 years on since the last Triple Crown winner, the venerable trainer is off to a strong start at Emerald, just as another Triple Crown hopeful, I’ll Have Another, readies for his date with destiny.

Along with the rest of the racing world Saturday afternoon, Bob Meeking will be watching. And listening.