07/12/2013 11:13AM

Saratoga: Racing figures share their fondest memories

Mike Marten
Medaglia d'Oro (right), Jerry Bailey up, wins the 2002 Travers, among Bailey's favorite memories from Saratoga.

As Saratoga Race Course celebrates its 150th anniversary, racing figures look back on their favorite memories and share what the track and city mean to them.

Angel Cordero, Hall of Fame jockey

Nicknamed “the King of Saratoga,” he was leading rider at the track 14 times

Saratoga is the most prestigious meeting in our country. You get the best horses, the best crowds. They don’t boo, even when you have 30,000 or 40,000 people. It’s a very special place.

It meant a lot when I first got there, in 1962. I was sleeping in cars and on friends’ floors, but I enjoyed it, I always dreamed about going. I said to myself, “One of these days, I’m going to get lucky and have a house here with a pool.” 

Winning the Travers is the most memorable thing you’re going to do in Saratoga. I got lucky in 1985 picking up the mount on Chief’s Crown. I’d been second or third so many times, but I just couldn’t win it until Chief’s Crown.

Tom Durkin, NYRA track announcer

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Saratoga is one of the linchpins of the entire industry. New York is itself certainly a linchpin, and Saratoga is its premier product, so I think without Saratoga as a product, you wouldn’t have much of a Thoroughbred industry at all.

It’s unfair to try to single out all of those great moments. I’ve been on that finish line for 22 years now, and if you wanted me to limit it to 50, I could whittle it down to that, but there’s no way I could limit it to one or two.

H. Allen Jerkens, Hall of Fame trainer

Leading trainer at Saratoga from 1971-1973

Saratoga is special, not as much to people who have been there a lot, but I can understand how people who haven’t been there before really feel good about it. I mean, I feel good about it even though I’ve been going for all these years.

The first time I went up there to stay, it was with three horses. My father was the trainer. We didn’t have any money, but we had a horse named Otter Brook, and he pulled us out pretty good. We bought him for $2,000 and he turned out to be pretty good, my first Saratoga winner. I didn’t have my own license yet.

Julie Krone, Hall of Fame jockey

For me, Saratoga was the best of everything, some of the very best of my life − finally making it in New York, competing for leading rider with Angel [Cordero] and Mikey [Smith].

Saratoga is not just a race meet, it’s such a mix of people really honoring summertime. You acknowledge that the days are long, and you can enjoy the lake and the parks and each other. Everyone’s so convivial, and Saratoga just shows the best of everybody. Once I ended up at the racetrack in the middle of the night, and in those old wooden stands, you can feel ghosts in the grandstand. You can see horse spirits race by, and you can hear the announcer and see the hats, and you can smell the cigars and the pipes. It was just spectacular. You could feel it, a lot of presence in the emptiness.

Barbara Livingston, photographer

I chose to be a horse racing photographer due to my childhood spent at Saratoga. The racetrack’s historic buildings, foggy mornings, and world-class horses − back then, the stars included Forego, Ruffian, and Alydar − sparked my lifelong passion. The best part is that every year is a new and unique moment in history. Never-ending inspiration.

Linda Rice, trainer

Leading trainer in 2009 and the first woman to win a Saratoga training title

Anywhere that I win races, I enjoy. Saratoga has been a special place for me for many reasons. I’ve had a lot of my best victories at Saratoga: My first Grade 1 was there with Things Change in the Spinaway. City Zip won all three 2-year-old stakes there, sweeping the series, winning the Grade I Hopeful at the end of the meet. I had the “Linda Rice superfecta” there [in the 2008 Mechanicville Stakes], and topping everything off with the training title in 2009.

Saratoga has a special place in my heart; it’s my favorite place to win a race. It’s got my best memories in horse racing. 

Jerry Bailey, Hall of Fame jockey

All-time leading rider at Saratoga and winner of seven meet riding titles

While the biggest change at Saratoga is the length of the meet, the specialness hasn’t changed. It’s the highest quality of racing, yet in a country fair atmosphere, and that’s what makes it so special. 

A few races stand out to me, but one memory is actually from a weekend − in 2002, when I won the Test on You, and then won the Diana on Tate’s Creek, both for Bobby Frankel. It was significant because I was trying to get the mount on Medaglia d’Oro. Kent Desormeaux was riding a couple of stakes for him in California that week, and Frankel told me that whoever did better would get the mount. So not only were those races great, but they got me the mount on Medaglia d’Oro, who won the Travers that year. 

Cecil Putnam, exercise rider

There are so many racing memories at Saratoga. Of course, watching Persistently beat Rachel Alexandra was probably the highlight, and seeing Lady’s Secret race there.

I’ve been going to Saratoga since 1979; I’ve missed two years in that period. The racing is just so different − we used to sit on the backside and watch the races, watch the horses break from the gate. That’s probably my first image of Saratoga. When it was a shorter meet, you had to jam so much into it. Now it’s more leisurely. For the first 10 years, I never knew what was outside Saratoga.

Marshall Cassidy, NYRA track announcer (1979-1990)

When you’re in Saratoga and you go to the racetrack, you can see some extraordinary things you can’t read about and you can’t see if you’re not there.

When I think about Saratoga, I think about Fio Rito winning the Whitney Handicap in 1981. He was fractious in the gate and handled by Jim Fitzraga; he broke through the gate and dragged Jim down the track at least 100 yards. Had the fan of horse racing come to the track, that person would have seen a wonderful display of what an assistant starter can do for a race. This man held on to the horse, was dragged off his feet, regained his feet, and 100 yards in front of the gate, stopped the horse, brought him back to the gate, and re-loaded him. The horse broke well and performed very well, all because of the assistant starter.

Allan Carter, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Obviously, what’s important about Saratoga is the history. The current track is 149 years old, and just think about all the horses that have raced on that track.

I remember in particular the 1978 Jim Dandy with Sensitive Prince and Affirmed. It wasn’t really historic at all, but Sensitive Prince, trained by Allen Jerkens, goes out to this huge lead, and you can’t even see Affirmed, 20, 22 lengths behind. You think, “Jerkens has done it again,” and somehow Affirmed won that race by about a length. I just love that race. It made me an Affirmed fan forever. I was Alydar before that, but I switched my allegiance. You love to see courage like that. 

Jonathan Sheppard, Hall of Fame trainer

The leading trainer at Saratoga in 1984 and 1985, he has won a race at the track every year since 1969

To me, Saratoga is the place where we showcase our sport. It embodies the epitome of excellence and tradition and all the finer things that we enjoy in horse racing. I think a win in Saratoga is equal to several wins most any place else. It’s a place where you can combine work with a little bit of a social aspect, which I think is important because even though I’m not a big cocktail party person, it’s a place where owners chat and congregate and exchange ideas and opinions and buy and sell stallion seasons.  

Being leading trainer at Saratoga for two seasons in a row meant a lot to me. They weren’t big numbers because it was a shorter meet in those days, but everyone zeroed in on a small number of races, and it was extremely competitive.   

Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club

Saratoga is an important part of the racing landscape because it showcases the top-quality horses that are racing at the time. It is important to me because I get to see all those top-quality horses, especially the 2-year-olds who are the future stars of our sport. I’ve been going to Saratoga since I was a kid. I always look forward to it, and I enjoy it immensely.