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Book Review

Saratoga Tales
Great Horses, Fearless Jockeys, Shocking Upsets and Incredible Blunders at America's Legendary Race Track
by Bill Heller
Whitston Publishing Company, 193 pages hardcover

In his seventeenth book, award-winning author Bill Heller pays tribute to his favorite track located in his home town. The long title, Saratoga Tales: Great Horses, Fearless Jockeys, Shocking Upsets and Incredible Blunders at America's Legendary Race Track perfectly describes the content, a series of stories about some of the most talked-about people, horses, and incidents in Saratoga history.

In one compact, easy to read book, Heller presents a history of "The Spa" in a very entertaining, quick-paced format that makes his work very hard to put down. Rather than go through a long, drawn out chronological history of the track, he chooses instead to focus on more recent events, which increases the content's relevance to contemporary readers. He dedicates an entire chapter on the career of the legendary Fourstardave, the only horse to win a race at Saratoga eight years in a row, describing in detail each of his wins and interviewing the many people who were involved in the gelding. Dave's equivalent in the training department is P.G. Johnson, famous not only for his Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi but also for training a Saratoga winner every year for the past 36 years. No book about Saratoga is complete without a chapter featuring jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. who came to Saratoga as a 19-year-old unknown and went on to win eleven consecutive riding titles from 1976 to 1986 despite numerous injuries and suspensions. Cordero still leads all jockeys, as of the beginning of the 2004 meet, with 640 Saratoga victories.

But the book isn't all about successes. Some of the more notable "tough losses" are also detailed. The 1972 Sanford Stakes is one example where betting favorite Linda's Chief, owned by local connections and heavily backed by the fans, was defeated easily by none other than Secretariat, the only time in his career the eventual Triple Crown winner was not the favorite. A claiming steeplechase in 1995, where jockey Sean Clancy's saddle slipped while he opened up a clear lead at the 1/8 pole, and although his mount's nose hit the wire first in a blanket finish, the stewards disqualified Roberto's Grace for not carrying his weight the entire distance. A $100,000 stakes race in 1980 where the outside horse in post 11 was left behind when Marshall Cassidy pressed the starter button before the filly got to load into the gate. And worst of all, a turf race in 1986 where after a bumping incident on the hedge the stewards disqualified the wrong horse. Later the purse money distribution was corrected but the mutuel payoffs were not. To this day, backers of the winner are still fuming and have even tried to sue NYRA for the lost winnings.

Besides exciting top-class racing and celebrities, Saratoga is also known for its weather, or specifically its bad weather. Heavy thunderstorms that turn the track into a swamp, lightning strikes that have forced cancellation of racing, and golf-ball sized hail pelting the jockeys and horses. With this in mind, Heller pays tribute to the grounds crew at the Spa for their tireless work to keep the horses and jockeys safe and the cancellations to a minimum. This theme came about in several of the chapters, including one featuring the 2000 Hopeful Stakes, where Yonaguska and City Zip finished in a dead heat for the win and eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno just behind them in third. The juveniles had to race through heavy rains and frequent flashes of lightning, a day Heller dubbed "The End of the World".

Saratoga Tales is a strongly recommended addition to every racing fan's personal library. Once you start reading, you won't be able to put it down until you're finished, and then you'll probably want to read it again. Heller shows us by this work, why Saratoga is such a special place and why he is so honored to be able to call it his home track.

Saratoga Tales has a list price of $25.95 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $17.65.

Rating:     5/5

Other books by Bill Heller:

Other Books about Saratoga:
Graveyard of Champions by Bill Heller
Saratoga Days by Sean Clancy
Saratoga Tales by Bill Heller
They're Off: Horse Racing at Saratoga by Edward Hotaling

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