By Jeff Wise
The color and the noise of a major stakes race are always dramatic, exciting, and suspenseful. The two minutes or so of the Travers (gr. I) at Saratoga are the Everest of the summer meet. For me, those minutes rival those of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). And most of us know that race as the most exciting two minutes in all of sports. But there are other minutes--or moments--when the racing of horses can seem just as special. Twenty horses pounding down the stretch at Churchill Downs in May, or perhaps half that number taking Saratoga's clubhouse turn with the famous grandstand roofline as a backdrop, are the sport's defining pictures. But there are other, more obscure, and unanticipated moments. Their obscurity and their surprise make them just as special. We in Saratoga wait each spring for the Oklahoma training track to come alive. Just as the best 3-year-olds take their shots at fame in Kentucky, we see the arrival of horse vans and the interruptions of morning traffic on Union Avenue as horses cross to head to the training track. This ritual is one I savor each year. As the meet approaches it becomes evident that more and more backstretch workers are in town. I see them, many on bicycles, in the evenings as they go about errands in their precious off-hours. All of this sparks my own daily routine: a morning drive by the Oklahoma track to see if anyone's got horses out for a jog or maybe a work. It's an incentive to get up, get going, and drive off to work a little earlier than necessary. Sometimes there isn't much happening. Other days the place is busy with Thoroughbreds, many of them youngsters, getting their legs stretched and their racing skills honed. One recent morning, though, it was more. As I drove along East Avenue and looked to see what was happening on the training track, I noticed two Thoroughbreds galloping along, a distance apart, on the backstretch. Nothing really out of the ordinary at first glance. But something--maybe instincts developed from years of my ritual--told me to stop and watch. I saw the two runners come closer together. Their images grew bigger and clearer as they ran; they were running toward me as I peered through the chain-link fence that separates the track from East Avenue. I realized what was about to happen and I thanked my instincts for making me stop to watch. Planned or not--I prefer to think not, but who am I to know training regimens of this morning's trainees--they came still closer together. Their riders took their positions, heads forward, backs parallel to the ground. Reins were shaken. And it was on. While my instincts had told me to stop my car, their instincts were saying step on it. Run. Run fast. And, perhaps most important to each of them, run faster than the other one. Manes were feeling the breeze as they hit the turn in front of me. Full bore, both of them. Neck and neck. Hammer and tong. Tooth and nail. It was the quintessential demonstration of two creatures, ancient bloodlines inside them telling them that, "Hey, this is what we do," expressing themselves and letting those bloodlines take over. They rounded the turn, riders chirping and yelling them on. They went by, finished the turn, and continued at each other's throats as they raced through to the finish line a quarter-mile away. I couldn't tell who "won." I didn't care. These moments lead to other moments, of course. On the main track, they lead to those indescribable displays of courage and speed and talent that have been shown to us by Seeking the Gold and Forty Niner in the 1988 Travers, the fillies Carson Hollow and You in the 2002 Test Stakes (gr. I), and so many others who have hooked up in a race and themselves decided: "Right here, right now, let's settle this." I have no idea who these two I watched may be, or who trains them, or whether they will ever get a chance to show 40,000 at Saratoga--or 140,000 at Churchill--the resolution of their personal rivalry, a rivalry perhaps born as I watched on a Saratoga morning. It hardly matters to them. They didn't care who was watching. This was between them. It's not out of my way to drive by the Oklahoma training track in the morning. But if it were, I would do it anyway.