One of the spoils of having family residing in Del Mar, Calif., and business taking place in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is an opportunity to sample some of the best this sport has to offer. Back-to-back visits to beautiful Southern California and the historic Spa can be the perfect tonic for whatever ails anyone who's ever caught racing fever.
There have been enough comparisons between the two destinations and declarations of superiority from both regions. You won't get that here. As an Illinois boy now living in Kentucky, suffice it to say I'm happy and privileged to visit either one.
This being written from Saratoga in the wake of Invasor's gripping victory over Sun King in the Whitney (gr. I) Aug. 5, the Del Mar of late July seems almost a distant memory. The memory bank can be filled so quickly with Saratoga snapshots.
Flash back last year to Whitney day, and there was Tracy and Carol Farmer accepting the Whitney silver tray from one of their dearest friends, Marylou Whitney, following Commentator's front-running victory. They came within inches of a return engagement when Sun King unleashed a furious stretch rally, but Invasor dug down and found just a little bit extra in the shadow of the finish to hold him off by a nose.
What followed next was almost more extraordinary than the race itself.
Marylou Whitney didn't become the grande dame of Saratoga by being ordinary. Known to be charitable, adventuresome, and compassionate, she showed an entirely different and more remarkable characteristic when she surprised the Saratoga crowd with a winner's circle appearance to hand the trophy to Rick Nichols, the president of Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable, which owns Invasor.
The always visible Whitney, who suffered a stroke on Memorial Day and has gone through rehabilitation, had made no public appearances since being stricken. Fund-raisers and charity balls she normally orchestrates were put off for the year. You can be certain Aug. 5 was circled on her calendar as motivation to return to the public eye.
So when track announcer Tom Durkin announced "the queen of Saratoga is with us this afternoon," all eyes focused on the silver Mercedes rolling toward the winner's circle. Escorted by her husband, John Hendrickson, Whitney emerged to sustained applause, smiling radiantly and moving slowly but with great determination toward the winning connections. The railbirds and box-holders cheered and waved, showing their appreciation for all she had done for racing, various charities, and the communities of the Capital Region. She soaked it all in, returning the love raining down upon her.
In the few steps she took, in that brief appearance in the Saratoga winner's circle, fans and admirers of Marylou Whitney witnessed uncommon courage and the heart of a champion. And I thought the stretch run of the Whitney was unforgettable. NO DUEL OF DERBY WINNERS
Del Mar officials had hoped to convince the connections of 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Funny Cide to send the gelding to California and an intriguing match-up in the Aug. 20 Pacific Classic (gr. I) with 2005 Derby winner Giacomo. That would have made the biggest race at the seaside track even better, and a marketer's dream.
To his credit, trainer Barclay Tagg knows Funny Cide isn't the horse he used to be and is spotting the New York-bred gelding by Distorted Humor in races where he can compete and win and still give his fans some thrills. That isn't likely to happen after a cross-country trip in grade I competition, though Funny Cide has shown in his last few races that he still has what it takes to win against slightly lesser foes.
Tagg is doing what's best for the horse, even if it means a dream race for Del Mar will remain just that.