Most Thoroughbred owners consider themselves lucky to catch lightning in a bottle once. Lucas Stritsman, from Troy, N.Y., has done it twice since he entered the game in 2011.
Stritsman also is among the owners of Tax after claiming him for $50,000 last Oct. 21 at Keeneland Race Course. The gelding ran fourth in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and won the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, stamping him as one of the top contenders for the Grade 1 $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Stritsman, 43, is co-owner with his brother, Evan, of Best Fire Hearth & Patio in Albany, N.Y. Their father, Wayne, started the business in the family’s garage more than four decades ago.
Stritsman is taking followers of America’s Best Racing along on his magical ride to the 150th Travers in a diary written for America’s Best Racing with Tom Pedulla. Here is the second of two installments:
When I attended Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., I made a presentation as part of a public speaking class in which I described Saratoga Race Course as “Everyman’s Place.” By that, I meant there is a place for everyone to feel comfortable. You could have a great day at the races whether you chose to put on a jacket and sit in box seats or if you preferred to wear shorts, pack a cooler, and camp out at a picnic table.
When I grew up in Wynantskill, N.Y., my family often headed to Saratoga to be part of the picnic table crowd. When I say it was a family event, I am talking about aunts and uncles and 15-20 cousins. We would occupy several picnic tables and it was great fun, something we always looked forward to.
The game fascinated me when I was a boy and still does. I would make sure I had a place along the paddock fence before big races such as the Travers and, for a time, I took pictures of all of the top horses. When I could not be there, I watched every racing show on television that I could and tracked different results.
I became friendly with Roddy Valente, an owner from our town, and kept spreadsheets on all of his horses. I knew at a young age that I wanted to own horses. I was not sure if the dream would ever come true, but that definitely was a goal and something that drove me to do well in everything.
Racing tends to bring people together. It was a big part of the bond I formed with Matt Canfield. He was nicknamed “Corms” in middle school for reasons I do not know, but the nickname stuck. We had one great time after another at the track. We made a few bets and drank a few beers. We went to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships together several times.
The whole experience with Tax has been surreal. A horse claimed for $50,000 in October as a 2-year-old is not expected to take you to the Kentucky Derby. But Tax did, thanks to the great work of our trainer Danny Gargan and his staff.
Thanks again to Danny, Tax has gotten significantly better since he ran 14th in the Derby. He stepped up to be fourth in the Belmont Stakes and we had high hopes for the Jim Dandy. My wife, Erika, and I initially reserved a table for 12 for that race for a group that included Joe Getz, a great friend and the self-proclaimed vice president of Corms Racing Stable. Before I knew it, we needed to accommodate 20 people.
Once the starting gate opened in the Jim Dandy, everything went as well for Tax as it could go. Tacitus, one of the horses to beat, stumbled at the gate. When the running got serious, Tax easily overtook Preakness winner War of Will to make the lead.
I was jumping up and down, shouting for all I was worth. Then I saw Tacitus gaining ground on the inside. I started looking for the wire. I was jumping out of my skin now. Tax had plenty left and held off Tacitus. “Oh my God,” I thought, “I just won the Jim Dandy!”
A fan nearby saw how excited I was.
“You own that horse?” he asked.
I told him I did.
“I wish I had you on camera,” he said. “That was awesome.”
He congratulated us and I hurried with my family to the winner’s circle. I got so choked up my wife thought I was going to cry. I could not help but think of Corms and what this would have meant to him. I send his mother Kathy the winner’s circle photo after every victory.
They call the Travers the “Mid-summer Derby.” If you live in upstate New York, it might just as well be the Derby. The Travers is the race every fan follows. No other plans are made on the day of that race.
We go into the Travers with a big shot. Tax could not be doing any better and he showed that with a bullet work, four furlongs in 47.33 seconds. The 3-year-old division is wide open and Tax would surely have to be in the conversation for championship honors if he should win the Travers.
I wish Corms could be there on Saturday. I feel he will be there in spirit.