A Cup of Coffee--August 17, 2001

By Sean Clancy
From The Saratoga Special, reprinted with permission

That gasp. That gasp from hell. It happened yesterday when Thunderello was loose. I was making my way from the paddock to the clubhouse when I heard it. All I saw was the look of a stunned horse on the far turn. Thunderello was standing splay legged with his head down and the reins slung up around his ears. Suddenly a horse who can run two lengths off a track record looks as lost as an old dog. It was an eery picture.

But it was that gasp that haunts. No way in any other sport does a crowd gasp like it does in Thoroughbred racing. The racetrack's a loud place with noises ricocheting all over. Bettors pleading for a horse to get home. Kids squawking for pop corn. The announcer telling the tale. Then that gasp deadens all the sounds, like a school bell breaking last period.

It happened when Aaron Gryder was bucked off a few weeks ago. When Indispensable fell in the A.P. Smithwick. I'm sure it happened with Go For Wand, Ruffian too.

I've heard it at Saratoga. At Penn National. At Nakayama Race Course in Japan. I've heard it for John Velazquez, Mike Smith, Jorge Chavez. I've heard it about too many horses.

You can't spell it out here on this page. Or even choreograph it again in your head. But it's unmistakable. Maybe it's the dead zone right after the gasp that is so telling. Hard to know if it's the actual noise of the action or the silence of the reaction. All I know is there's nothing worse in our world. Never again, never again we wish. For that split second you think what in the world are we doing here.

I think it's good they gasp. Or should I say, we gasp. Certainly must mean we care. It's like we can't believe it. We're shocked. Maddened. Scared. Worried. Hopeful, too. It also means it doesn't happen that often. That we're always snap surprised by it.

Hollywood's never made a gasp like they have at the track. When the shower curtain was pulled back in Psycho, no way. When King Kong looks into his hand, no way. When Jack Nicholson breaks through the door in The Shining, no way. No gasp like they have at the track.

I'm not even sure what Thunderello did to create such a gasp. Looked like he tried to jump the outside rail. Glad I was still walking when it occurred. I hate to see horses in turmoil and I hate to hear that gasp.

We can only hope that Thunderello's full of oats tonight, lying in a bed of thick straw and thinking he'll never do something so foolhardy again. Hopefully he'll live to fight another day. Maybe in a couple of weeks.

As for tomorrow.

The crowd will file into the track; picks selected, seats marked off, picnics packed. The horses will file over from the barns; coats brushed, bridles measured, manes braided. The trainers will file into the paddock; instructions memorized, nerves put away, game faces on. The jockeys will file from the jocks' room; boots polished, colors pressed, fires sparked.

The races will start. The gasp will lie in waiting. In all probability that's where it will stay.

It will come again, though. That you can be sure of. Like a thunderstorm or a parking ticket, a change of heart or a hangover, it will come again. Let's hope not tomorrow.

Contact Sean Clancy via e-mail at sean@thesaratogaspecial.com or telephone at 518-581-1947.