A Bit of Background to My American Pharoah at Saratoga Story

With Triple Crown winner American Pharoah set to run in the Travers Stakes, I was in Saratoga Springs, NY on August 28 and 29 to cover the atmosphere for VICE Sports. Here’s a bit of background on how my story came to be.

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As soon as Pharoah won at Belmont in June, I was looking ahead to when he would race next, and whether I would have a chance to see him. After he won the Haskell Invitational in New Jersey in July, it looked like his next (and probably second-last) race would be either the Travers or the Pennsylvania Derby in Philadelphia in September.

I started thinking about a story I could write, hoping to employ a lesson I learned from Robert Daley’s autobiography, Writing on the Edge: If there’s somewhere you want to go or something you want to do, find someone who will pay you to go and write a story about it.

Of course, I’m not a horse racing insider and there are plenty of writers who can do a better job covering the race itself (if you haven’t read Tim Layden’s stories for Sports Illustrated, I’ll wait while you do). But I thought I could pitch a story about the crazy atmosphere that has followed American Pharoah ever since his Belmont victory and what it the party would be like at the Travers.

I pitched it to three different VICE editors before finding the right one and I was off to the races—literally…almost. I waited until Pharoah was confirmed for the Travers (and until I had an assignment) to apply for media accreditation—the New York Racing Association’s media folks were understandably busy and inundated with requests in the week leading up to the race, and my application was denied.

When I had heard the race was going to sell out before people even knew whether Pharoah was coming or not, I had purchased two general admission tickets so that I could go whether I was writing a story or not. My editor was still cool with me going as a spectator, as I could still report on the atmosphere trackside, but, to quote Hunter Thompson:

We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard—or even Mace somebody.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.14.33 PMLuckily, it didn’t come to that. After much pleading and several assurances on my part that I didn’t need a seat in the press box, which was full, the lovely Jeanne Schnell, NYRA communications coordinator, took pity on me and approved my credential (I did make the climb up to the press box on Friday morning and was promptly ushered out by the manager, but at least I could access everywhere else at the track).

I left Ottawa before dawn on Friday in a rented Kia Sorento (free upgrade from a Corolla because the lady who rented it thought it was too big for her—gracias, Enterprise), arriving in Saratoga just before 10 o’clock. After picking up my press pass, I wandered around for a while to get my bearings.

I felt out-of-place and not only did I not know anyone there, I would barely recognize anyone except a few core members of Pharoah’s team. When I cover F1 races, I recognize everybody, even if I don’t know them—not so here.

Eventually, I decided I needed to find American Pharoah, so I headed out to the stables on the back stretch. His was pretty easy to pick out—it was the only one with barriers at each end manned by security guards.

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After chatting with one of the guards for a few minutes, he told me that Pharoah’s trainers would probably come around three o’clock to take him for a little walk, so I spent the next hour or so hanging out and watching the races from the backstretch.

Right on time, Bob Baffert’s assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes appeared and brought Pharoah out of his stall, right in the middle of a long stable, to keep the crowds back. People clustered at the barricades at either end of the stable as horse and trainer walked in a slow loop.  Almost every time Pharoah got to the end of the row of old maples that lined the stable, he paused and held his head in the air, posing for the gathered fans snapping photos non-stop (I may have taken a few, as well).

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After Pharoah returned to his stall, I walked back to the grandstand and decided it was time to call it a day.  I had planned on going into Saratoga Springs to see what was happening—perhaps another scene for the story—but I wanted to check into my motel first and have a shower and maybe a nap.  I walked back across the street, towards the Oklahoma Training Track, where I had parked, passing by a row of signs listing all of the previous Triple Crown winners.  American Pharoah’s had just been installed.

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After a quick Walmart stop for some boneless wings, my first food since breakfast (and one of my favourite things about America), I drove north for about 25 minutes to Lake George, the closest place I could find a reasonably priced room for the weekend (and I booked a few weeks in advance—before Ahmed Zayat announced Pharoah was coming). In the end, I never made it back out of my room, which was probably for the best, considering I needed to get an early start Saturday morning, too. The track opened at 7 a.m. and it was going to be busy.

The drive back down I-87 the next morning was fine and I pulled off the interstate at about 6:45. Traffic was backed up nearly to the exit. Post time for the Travers was 11 hours away.

As I was waiting in the traffic jam on Union Avenue, right beside the grandstand, the gates opened and I saw the stampede among general admission ticket holders for the track’s picnic tables and the best viewing spots.  One of the coolest things about Saratoga is that you can reserve a picnic table (of which the official program said there are 700) with a cooler or a blanket or even a newspaper.  You just leave it at your spot and nobody will touch it for the rest of the day.  People also bring folding chairs and position them in front of the grandstand, claiming their seats for the race.

The unofficial reservation policy applies not only to picnic tables, but to any other seat (or object resembling a seat) at the track—and here it becomes annoying. By the afternoon, you couldn’t even find a place to sit underneath the grandstand, where there are benches and chairs positioned in front of the TV screens. Many of the seats were empty, but they were “reserved.”

Anyway, after finding a parking spot by the Oklahoma circuit again, I walked back over to the track. The majority of licence plates were from New York, obviously, but people had come from everywhere to see American Pharoah. I saw plates from Florida, Maine, California…three of the four corners of the country (Montana was the closest I saw to the Pacific Northwest).  But here was South Carolina, over there, Texas.  And everyone was in a good mood.

The first race was not scheduled until 11:45, but there was a real festival atmosphere around the track and (almost) everyone was ready to party.

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For a while, they replayed this year’s Triple Crown races and some old Travers races, with the sound on over the loudspeakers. I still get chills (literally) watching the homestretch of the Belmont (which I watched live on my laptop in the media centre at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve while all the European journos were watching the Champions League final).

“And they’re into the stretch, and American Pharoah makes his run for glory…”

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By the time the races started, just before noon, the track was getting very crowded and fans were already five or six deep along the rail, returning to their seats or picnic tables (or the concessions and betting windows) between races.

IMG_6253Ah, the concessions. I have never been to a sporting venue of any kind with a greater variety of concessions than Saratoga Race Course. There were all your typical snacks, but also a Mexican stand, a lobster hut, a chowder bar (I later learned chowder is quite popular in Saratoga), a specialty fry stand, some sandwich places, a fresh salad bar, various chains (Shake Shack, Dunkin’ Donuts) and an incredible drink selection, including tons of local New York state beers, which I unfortunately couldn’t sample.  I’m sure there were more I forgot/didn’t see.

There was also “American Pharoah Breakfast” sponsored by Heineken in the morning. That reminded me of Bart before the Springfield mini-putt championship (“Newsflash, Lisa: Bart is not a horse!”). I got a fried egg sandwich with cheese for three bucks…not bad.

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I spent the early part of the afternoon wandering around, interviewing various fans and just listening and observing.  With such a long day, the mood was generally mellow (except when the horses were running), although you could tell people were excited for American Pharoah.

About an hour before Travers post time, I headed out to American Pharoah’s stable and when I arrived, he was having a pre-race bath. I followed him from his stable almost all the way to the paddock and the scene was incredible, much of which I described in my article. People were 5, 10 or more deep along much of the route, and particularly when he left the paddock to enter the track.

I had originally planned to watch the race from behind the first level of grandstands, but that was also packed about 10 deep, so I continued upward. Eventually, I ended up in one of the exclusive club areas directly over the finish line, maybe 3o or 40 feet from where Bob Baffert was standing.

IMG_6270As Pharoah and Frosted rounded the final turn neck and neck, the crowd noise was incredible—even more so when Pharoah pulled ahead. And then Keen Ice ran him down at the wire and it seemed like everyone was in shock. Some of Keen Ice’s connections started running down the stairs and I followed them into the winners’ circle.

“Unbelievable,” everyone kept saying. “Unbelievable.”

I was standing next to American Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, while he was interviewed by NBC and ESPN and then I just took in the scene. Someone, I think maybe Keen Ice’s trainer, said he wasn’t surprised Keen Ice had won, based on how he had run against Pharoah before (although he had been dominated by a coasting Pharoah at their last race at Monmouth Park).

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After that, I spent another hour or so wandering through the dissipating crowd, getting some reaction from the shocking upset.

Around 7:30, I made my way back to the car and took my time getting everything ready to go, as the cars were barely moving. I talked to Caitlin, worrying that I didn’t have enogh material for the story, but she calmed me down, as usual (in the end, I had too much—which is why you’re reading this, I guess). Once things started to clear out, I headed for downtown Saratoga Springs and the only sports bar I found on Google: Peabody’s.

After a bit of supper, washed down with a New York beer I don’t remember the name of, and a nice chat with the hostess, whose dad owned the bar and was born in Ottawa(!), I started to drive home. About two hours later, I pulled over at a rest stop near Plattsburgh to sleep for a few hours in the car (the glamour of journalism!) and made it home a bit after six on Sunday morning, just in time for the kids to wake up.

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