Saratoga Morning

Saratoga Morning

Barbara D. Livingston

Steve Haskin's Saratoga Memories: The Doc and the Storm

Next year will be my (gulp!) 40th anniversary at Saratoga, so what better time (other than next year) to go down memory lane and rekindle some of the unforgettable moments that have made the Spa such a magical place. This is the first in a series of weekly columns recounting some of those moments.

My first visit was in 1968 when I took an Adirondack Trailways bus from New York City and checked into the Victoria Hotel on Broadway, which, of course, is long gone. On its site now stands a Boston Market. Even back then it was an old hotel with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s.

Walking to the track each morning up Lincoln Ave. and past Siro’s was like skipping along the yellow brick road, waiting for that first glimpse of Emerald City. They had recently begun serving breakfast on the track apron, where  you were greeted by a tuxedo-clad maitre d’. If you didn’t mind that the tips normally were hotter than the food, it was a great experience, with the smell of bacon permeating the crisp mountain air, the clanging of dishes and silverware, and some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country galloping and working in front of you. Once in a while you’d see a top trainer having breakfast, and you could listen in on Bill Johnson’s Saturday morning radio show at one of the tables.

After training and breakfast, it was off to the National Museum of Racing across the street to watch the crackly, black and white replays of the previous days races and a small feature preceding it. This was held downstairs (or was it upstairs?) in a small room with folding chairs, an old-fashioned pull-up screen, and a 16mm projector (or was it 8 mm?).

A few days after arriving in Saratoga, I managed to find a shopping center that had a camera store, and bought myself one of those little Kodak Brownie Instamatic cameras, which was considered modern technology back then. I had to capture all these indelible images and the beauty of Saratoga.

My first morning at the track with my new camera, I shot just about everything I saw -- the grandstand, adorned with flowers, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his sons, my hotel, and even the McDonalds across the street.

On Travers morning, I managed to get shots of trainer Eddie Neloy having breakfast and Johnson interviewing trainer Henry Forrest, who would be saddling the Travers favorite, Forward Pass.

As training hours drew to a close, the skies, which had been bright and sunny all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those wild Saratoga thunderstorms was imminent. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, I could hear a faint voice over the public address system announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.”

It was the Saturday before the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, in which the Doc would be gunning for the one-mile world record, and on this morning he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.

Just as he made his way on to the track, the skies opened up, as the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. I, however, was not going to blow an opportunity to take a picture of the mighty Dr. Fager, especially with my brand new Kodak Brownie Instamatic.

Everyone headed in one direction and I headed in the opposite direction toward the rail. I got there just as Dr. Fager was walking by accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. The exercise rider, Jose Marrero, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me, as if wondering what kind of idiot would come running out into the pouring rain to take a picture of a horse. But this was no ordinary horse.

Like some majestic shrouded figure, Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wide-eyed 21-year-old. As he walked  past me me, oblivious to the elements, he had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red.

I managed to take one shot of him before high-tailing it back under cover. The first person I saw was the Doc’s trainer, John Nerud, who was well-prepared for the weather, decked out in a yellow poncho. I went over and said, “John,” and when he looked up and gave me a friendly smile, I took his picture as well.

Through the murk and rain, the good doctor breezed five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from Marrero, who had to weigh at least 150 to 160 pounds. A week later, he broke the world record for the mile, winning eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds. It would become the most sought after record in racing, lasting nearly three decades.

For years, I carried that photo in my wallet. It was not a very good photo, but in many ways it was the best I’ve ever taken, with the Doc’s rich blood-bay coat bursting with color even on such a gloomy morning. I still look at that picture and think back to when everything was new – my camera, my first trip away from home by myself, and my newly found obsession with horse racing.

The following year, I left Wall Street, where I had worked as an over-the-counter stock trader, and took a job as a copy boy at the old Morning Telegraph. My world and the world of Saratoga and Dr. Fager were now and forever one.