Most of the New York racing world was focused on Saratoga this past Sunday – understandably – Rachel Alexandra was racing that day. But, even though things are a lot quieter down at Belmont, the backstretch is still full of race horses that need to be exercised every morning. The training track is closed for repairs, so Joe, Steve and partner Vinny DiSpigno couldn’t have their usual couple of hours hanging out on the rail near Bruce Brown’s barn. Instead, they visited with Talking Blues and Bishop of Nola, who were already back in their stalls, after their morning breezes, and then went over to the main track to hang on that rail for a change.
Most trainers send their horses out one at a time, a lot go out in pairs, and, every now and then, there’s a group of three or even four. But the railbirds got to see Christophe Clement’s horses all come out onto the track together. There must have been a dozen of them, prancing and huffing and circling, all in matching saddle cloths. No other trainer in New York sends out that many at a time, mostly because no other trainer can find that many exercise riders. But Clement, who hails from France (and quit smoking Gauloises only a couple of years ago), still trains in the European manner. His exercise riders double as grooms and hotwalkers, so he can keep more of them on as full-time employees. We have to tell you, if races were decided by how a trainer’s string looked in the morning, Clement would win hands down.
On most August Sundays, that would have been the end of live racing for the day for the Castle Village Farm guys. But, at 11:00, as he was driving home from the Belmont backstretch, Steve got a call from Bruce. “Don’t go home yet. Come up here to Saratoga. That horse you wanted to claim, the one I thought wouldn’t be available, well, he is. You want him, we’ll go for him.” So, Steve did, and here’s his report:
Beautiful day for a drive up to the Spa; made it in just over three hours, in plenty of time before the seventh race.
Bruce and I checked out our pick, Dallas Stewart’s three-year-old Henceforth, as he came into the paddock. Nice big, well-muscled horse, walking well, no obvious problems. So Bruce dropped the claim slip at the racing office while I watched from outside the paddock; if a potential buyer is inside the paddock before the race, the claim can be voided. That actually hgppened to us a few years ago. One of our partners found himself inside the paddock at the wrong moment. It wasn’t fun.
Henceforth was a little on edge getting saddled, and was the only horse leaving the paddock for the track to show a lot of kidney sweat. That’s never a good sign. As the gate opened for the race, he stumbled, then tried to make up ground from his far outside post position, racing wide the whole way around. He made some headway down the stretch, but, by the sixteenth pole, he’d faded. He finished next to last. He had lots of excuses, but for someone who’d dropped a claim slip on him, it was not a great feeling. But, I thought, it was the wrong race for that horse, wrong surface, wrong distance, and the horse had a terrible trip. I still wanted him.
So Bruce and I went back to the racing office to see if we had. There’d been a bunch of other claims dropped on that race. We didn’t know who they were for, but so we figured at least a couple of them must have been on Henceforth. We were more right than we’d ever have guessed. There were seven claims in the race – and all seven of them were for Henceforth. The line-up at the racing office counter included Gary Contessa, Dominick Galluscio (dressed for the nineteenth hole in a bright magenta sports jacket), Mike Maker (Maker wasn’t there himself; one of his assistants was standing in for him), Scott Everett, a couple of other trainers, and us.
The racing office is always full of people who don’t seem to have anything to do, maybe because some of them have very specialized jobs, like managing the shake when there’s a bunch of claims on the same horse. In Saratoga, that job belongs to a little guy with big glasses. With seven claims, Little Guy must have felt like he’d done a full day’s work. He slapped the seven claim slips face down in a row on the racing office counter, as if he was dealing a hand of cards.
I thought the shake would be next, but something else happened first, something I’d never seen before. As Little Guy was laying out the claim slips, one by one each of the seven trainers put $100 in cash on the counter next to the slips. Nobody said anything about it; nobody even blinked; they just did it. It was pretty clear that the winner of the horse would also get to take home the $700.Little Guy dropped seven numbered balls into a cup that looked like it had been made for a couple of dice, gave the cup a good shake, and then tipped it just enough for one of the balls to roll out onto his palm. It was a four. Laboriously, Little Guy counted out the claim slips, from left to right, one to four, and turned over the Little Guy dropped fourth slip. It had Mike Maker’s name scrawled on it; Maker had gotten the horse for owner Ken Ramsey. And his assistant had gotten a cool $700.