As the 2011 Saratoga meeting ends with Havre de Grace becoming the second filly to win the Woodward Stakes, comparisons will be made with the historic 2009 meeting where Rachel Alexandra won en route to her election as Horse of the Year over Breeders' Cup Classic winner Zenyatta. In his first book, Saratoga Springs based turf writer Brendan O'Meara takes the reader on a behind the scenes account of what may be the most memorable Spa meeting in recent history. O'Meara sets the story up chronologically, covering each of the 6 weeks separately, through the eyes of several key players, with most of the focus on NYRA president Charles Hayward, long-time Saratoga-based trainer Nick Zito, and jockey Calvin Borel who rode at The Spa full time that year. In addition to what happened at Saratoga, he includes detailed biographies of these key characters and how they got into the racing game.
O'Meara starts off with how Saratoga was founded and a biography of John Morrissey, winner of the heavyweight championship when boxing was an outlaw sport and contested without gloves. O'Meara points out that of the three co-founders of Saratoga -- Morrissey, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Travers -- only two of them are honored with rich Grade 1 stakes races at the meeting. However, the man who originally decided that Saratoga Springs needed an organized race meeting at a purpose-built track, gives his name to a $75,000 race on a Wednesday for New York-breds. This seems to be a great injustice, which hopefully will be corrected at some point.
Through insider accounts, O'Meara reveals how NYRA brass managed during the difficult times of the 2009 meet, when NYRA's franchise renewal was not yet a done deal and the Aqueduct casino with its influx of cash appeared to be delayed forever. The team was always under pressure to improve on previous year's numbers, both handle and attendance, but are forever at the mercy of Saratoga's weather, where frequent rains and extreme heat can keep customers away. As well, Hayward, who was hired in 2004, was still relatively new and already unpopular for "cleaning house" after firing several people popular with horsemen including the racing secretary. The season did not get off on the right foot for Hayward, when he missed a planned news conference and meeting with the Parting Glass Racing partnership when a projectile struck his car on I-87 and stranded him.
On the trainer side, Nick Zito, a native of Brooklyn, is the epitome of New York horseman and was inducted into the Hall of Fame that year. O'Meara covers Zito's handling of Commentator, two-time winner of the Whitney Handicap but 3rd in his final career start when attempting to three-peat in the 2009 renewal. Despite being retired during the meet, he stayed in Zito's barn until given a proper sendoff in the winner's circle. Jockey Calvin Borel did not get many rides during that meet, but he and fiancée Lisa Funk had made the decision to go there in order to stay close to Rachel Alexandra, who was stabled there by trainer Steve Asmussen.
Rachel Alexandra only raced once at Saratoga despite staying there for the entire meet. She shipped south to win the Haskell, then rather than go in the Travers, owner Jess Jackson decided to put her in the Woodward Stakes against older males. O'Meara covered her training there under assistant Scott Blasi, with Borel always in attendance to witness her workouts. Readers expecting a book about the 2009 Horse of the Year based on the title may be disappointed, as her Woodward, clearly the highlight of the meet, is covered only in the last few chapters. O'Meara reveals the impact Rachel Alexandra had, with her name and photograph on storefronts across town, and a crowd of over 31,000 on what is usually a poorly attended race day near the end of the meeting. However, his account was exciting and well-written, bringing racing fans back to that Saturday afternoon.
Racing fans wanting an insider account of life at Saratoga Race Course through the eyes of both management and a Hall of Fame trainer will enjoy O'Meara's entertaining writing style, interspersed with funny quotes by Hayward and Zito. After the Triple Crown and before the Breeders' Cup, the Saratoga meeting clearly is the place to be for most racing fans. However, the subtitle and cover photo suggest a book about Rachel Alexandra, which it is not. The cover photo leaves much to be desired, as Rachel Alexandra's head has been cropped out and jockey Calvin Borel's face is obscured, but at least her name is visible on the saddle cloth. Given that they are two of the main characters in the book, this was inexcusable, along with the fact that the photo is from the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, rather than from the Woodward, the feature race of the book. O'Meara did complete the task he set out to accomplish, and gives the reader a greater appreciation of the hard work of track management to keep a prestigious race meet running smoothly, and of the trainers and jockeys who participate in the sport for our entertainment.
Six Weeks in Saratoga has a list price of $19.99 and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $14.99.
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