The first horse I fell in love with was Funny Cide. He was an underdog from New York, so how could I not love him? That year, 2003, I made my first ever trip to the track. My friend Eric and I took the Long Island Railroad out to Belmont Park, bought general admission tickets, and snuck our way around. I spent the week leading up to that reading a little book on how to bet races, so I guess I spoke well enough that I was able to place wagers successfully. Despite the rain, and despite Funny Cide coming up short, I was hooked for life that day. Eric and I continued going to the Belmont Stakes nearly every year thereafter.
Since that day, horse racing has brought me immeasurable happiness and more memories than I can count. I met my best friend, Joe, when I was in college, and he and I would handicap major races together (very poorly at that time.) We went to Breeders’ Cups and Haskells and Belmont Stakes. We collected free hat after free hat. We fell in love with Shackleford, and argued about Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta. We memorized the entire call of the 2011 Arkansas Derby, punctuated with emphatic shouts of “ARCH! ARCH! ARCH!” We had lunch with handicapping legend Andrew Beyer at Pimlico Race Course, and played a drinking game every time Joe’s friend finished making a bet by saying “This could be HUGE!” He said it enough that we were never thirsty, even though it rarely ended up being huge.
I love this sport. I love the excitement of a race and the thrill of a win. But even more than that, I love the way that a big race can bring people together like few other events can. So, needless to say, I was ecstatic when I received an email in early August informing me that I had won America’s Best Racing’s Ultimate 48 Sweepstakes. Ecstatic really doesn't describe it adequately; I was over the moon. Two days. Two coasts. Two premier racetracks. Two quintessential Grade 1 classic races. I couldn't believe my luck. This was everything a race fanatic like myself could dream of: quite simply, the perfect weekend.
It did not disappoint.
The weekend began bright and early Saturday morning. The aforementioned Joe was sadly unable to join us for the weekend, since he just began law school (priorities?!) but I had no problem finding travel companions to take his place for this adventure. My buddies Mike and Chris are not quite as enthusiastic about the Sport of Kings as I am, but they’re both fans who enjoy the pageantry and excitement of a big race day, and were both eager to join me for this experience of a lifetime. So Saturday morning, they met me in front of my building, and we began the ride to Saratoga Race Course.
The gang meets up with the fabulous ladies of Saratoga.
After a fun little drive and a quick stop at the hotel, we made our way to Saratoga Race Course. I spent summers when I was in college working at my old summer camp about an hour north of Saratoga, and on days off we would occasionally go down to watch the meet; though I had never been for Travers day. Meanwhile, my friends had never been to the Spa before and were getting their first look at the place.
For those of you who have never been, let me tell you this: Saratoga is everything you hoped it would be. Vintage without feeling aged, it is a timeless classic, a shining example of our sport. From the old wooden seats of the clubhouse to the bandshells and the picnic tables, it feels like a bygone era without feeling anachronistic. Everyone is dressed to the nines, but still so warm and inviting as not to put off first-time visitors or casual fans. For a New Yorker like myself, the Saratoga meet is summer camp for horse racing, a chance for friends old and new to come together in some place close by but still remote, a town and an experience truly unique unto itself, and to celebrate with one another the triumph of four-legged athleticism.
The race card was phenomenal, as were the Clubhouse seats from which we were watching. In the Ballerina Stakes, my buddy Mike was enthusiastically rooting for Artemis Agrotera, mostly because his close friend Quinn is the son of her trainer, Michael Hushion. She responded by running the fastest seven furlongs of the day – faster than even the boys pace in the Travers – romping her way into a spot in the Filly and Mare Sprint at the Breeders’ Cup this fall. In one of my favorite races of the year, the King’s Bishop Stakes, The Big Beast lived up to his name, holding off Fast Anna by a neck. And in the Travers Stakes, the Jimmy Jerkens horse brought home the victory, but not the one everyone expected, as V. E. Day came in as the 19.50-to-1 shot to take the $1.25-million event. In a victory of a much smaller scale, the race also completed the Pick 4 my friends and I put together, closing with a valuable longshot to make the ticket a major payday for us all.
Celebrating a Pick 4 victory.
Just as Saratoga Race Course takes on a special life during the summer meet, so too does the town of Saratoga. My buddies and I joined some other friends of mine for a post-race dinner, before meeting up with Victoria Garofalo and Dan Tordjman from America’s Best Racing to enjoy the great nightlife that ’Toga has to offer. On an evening following a major race, the vibe of the track follows the crowd into town, where everyone wants to keep the festivities going into the late hours, and we spent the next few hours dancing, drinking, and talking ponies. I’m sure we would have kept on going even longer, but we had only a few hours until our flight to San Diego.
The gang celebrates the day with Victoria and Dan.
Two flights later, we found ourselves on the West Coast, with the sun shining off the Pacific Ocean and the horses prepping for a day at Del Mar. I was told upon arriving to the track “Saratoga’s a tradition, but Del Mar is a party,” and I could immediately understand why.
Del Mar is unlike any track I had ever visited: big, bright, shiny and luxurious. Part museum, part arena, part five-star hotel, Del Mar is pure hospitality top to bottom, and we had the privilege of watching some of the races from the exquisite Breeders’ Cup Directors’ Box. Still, for a fan like me, watching a race from the box was second to watching one from the infield, right next to the starting gate. That flash of a moment when the horses jumped out of the box left me just plain giddy, and left me with a memory for a lifetime.
Watching the race from the Del Mar starting gate.
Yet, even with all these bells and whistles, the action on the track was still the main focus, highlighted by the two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races: the Pat O’Brien Stakes and the TVG Pacific Classic. In the first, my beloved Goldencents showed that he’s far from done, breezing past race favorite Fed Biz and setting a track record in the process. Later, in the TVG Pacific Classic, my lack of faith in Shared Belief was proven very foolish as Mike Smith piloted the 3-year-old to a remarkable victory, leaving two of my favorite horses in training – Game On Dude and Toast of New York – several lengths behind. In just over two minutes, I went from a doubter to a Beliefer, and I cannot wait to see him take on California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, so we can see once and for all who the best 3-year-old in the nation is.
Ciara and the boys close down Del Mar.
The day ended as any great San Diego day should: with fish tacos. My group had the pleasure of ABR’s own Ciara Austin as a guest, as we dined at the nearby Brigantine and shared stories of an unbelievable weekend. Finally, Chris and Mike headed back to enjoy the night at the beautiful Torrey Pines Lodge, while I made my way to the airport to catch a red-eye flight back to reality.
It’s not often that someone can say they lived out a dream, but thanks to this past weekend, I can say I did. Good friends, good weather, good food, and great racing. One weekend, two coasts, three pals, four winners on the Pick-4. From the classic New York majesty of Saratoga to the upbeat California beauty of Del Mar, the memories of this weekend are incomparable. I am so lucky to have had this opportunity, so thrilled to see this sport at its best, and so incredibly thankful to America's Best Racing for putting such a magical time together.
When I found out I had won the Ultimate 48, I called my friend Joe to tell him the news. His prediction this time was entirely spot-on: “This could be HUGE.” … Drink!