Thursday, 31 August 2023 13:57

The Travers & The Winner’s Circle

By William G. Gotimer, Jr. | Winner's Circle
Photo provided by NYRA. Photo provided by NYRA.

The 154th Travers is in the books. Arcangelo was a commanding winner under 2023 Jockey of the Year Javier Castellano. Notably, trainer Jena Antonucci became only the second female trainer to saddle a Travers winner as Arcangelo stamped himself as the leading candidate for three-year-old of the year honors.  At this point is Arcangelo is considered a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November where a win would make him Horse of the Year. The penultimate Saratoga weekend was marred by another equine fatality on the undercard when New York Thunder suffered a catastrophic breakdown in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes. 

The headliner of the meet’s final weekend will be Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup contested at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. The final day of the 2023 meet is Labor Day September 4th.

Fatigue/Weariness

When participants in an endeavor begin to flag it is often said “fatigue has set in”. Fatigue is a synonym for weariness which is defined as “reluctance to see or experience any more of something”. Both words are apt descriptions of the collective mood of racing fans and participants this year at Saratoga Race Course. Weary of the incessant rain, weary of short fields in races moved to the main track from the grass courses, weary of controversies over decisions in the stewards’ booth and in the pari-mutuel offices, and most of all weary of defending the sport in the face of highly visible, highly emotional catastrophic breakdowns deep in the stretch on two of the biggest race days of the meet.

If the old show biz maxim “Always leave them wanting more” had a polar opposite, it would be “just let this race meet end”. These words have been said to me this week by many people who love racing and by many people who make their living in the sport. A perusal of the comments contained the words “cursed’, “overwhelming”, “flabbergasted”, “difficult”, “deflating” and in the most graphic comment “a ghastly soul-destroying meet”.  More than one person has expressed some disbelief in their heartfelt desire to get back to Aqueduct - the much maligned, but historically significant, downstate race track.

This weariness was evident in the stretch run of Saturday’s Ballerina Stakes when Echo Zulu put forth a tremendous front running win in front of a crowd that was noticeably reluctant to cheer or root loudly. Having worked and participated in this meet for almost five decades (and my father and grandfather decades before me) I am acutely aware of how much pride is taken in this marquee meet by employees at all levels on both the front and backside of the racetrack. This year they are wounded and mostly weary. When you see them give them all a nod – there are better meets ahead - but first we must get out of this one.

Jonathan Sheppard

Jonathan Sheppard passed away this week at the age of 82. He was a mainstay on the Saratoga stage with a list of accomplishments as a trainer as long as the steeplechase marathons his horses routinely won.

Jonathan Sheppard’s accomplishments were voluminous as you would glean from his induction into the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame in 1990 at a young age. He was one of only two trainers (along with Sidney Watters) to train champions in both the steeplechase and flat divisions. He held every possible record as a steeplechase trainer.

While his full body of work during his 56-year career was awe-inspiring, his accomplishments at Saratoga are downright legendary. In addition to being the meet’s leading trainer in consecutive seasons in 1984 and 1985, he won the prestigious New York Turf Writers’ Cup a staggering fifteen times. However, even that record pales in comparison to his record that seems destined to last forever - having won at least one race at Saratoga for 47 consecutive years (1969-2015)! Repeat– 47 years!

Sheppard’s mentee – pre-eminent steeplechase trainer Keri Brion – told me this week “He was an incredible horseman and I am so blessed and grateful to have learned all that I did from him. I am trying my best to carry on his legacy in my training methods. Thank you wouldn’t even begin to be enough to say to him. We lost a true legend.” 

Katie Davis

Jockey Katie Davis continued her stellar meet with her talent and knack of getting the most from her mounts who routinely outrun their odds. She and husband Trevor McCarthy accomplished a racing rarity this week by each winning a race on the same card. As impressive as her riding ability is, it is matched by her charm. Katie Davis is quickly and increasingly becoming a fan favorite - seemingly always willing to oblige young fans who desire a smile and a photograph.  She is a tremendous ambassador of the sport. Watching younger fans, especially little girls, gravitate towards her before and after every race has truly been the highlight of the meet.

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