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Friday, March 25, 2005

Saratoga Stan

- Sunday is Easter and cold turkey for most of us around the country. As those of you who have been visiting here may know, I’m old enough to recall when there was no racing in New York nor in many other states on Sundays, and I’ve mentioned before my Sunday afternoon trips to Monticello Raceway to get my racing fix when simulcasting was just a pipe dream. It was a booming little harness track in those days, and the Sunday cards would feature top drivers from the Roosevelt/Yonkers circuit like Herve Filion and Ben (“Benny the Whip”) Webster, along with top horses and stakes races.

Monticello is one of the tracks in New York that already has slots, and I’ve posted before about how VLT money has revived the fortunes of the track, which was previously near extinction. For awhile they were racing with a 4PM post time in a desperate attempt to attract some in-between day and night simulcast money. Besides bigger purses and a spanking new paddock, interest in owning horses there has been revived, as evidenced by the fact that 48 horses have been claimed thus far during the current meeting, as compared to 67 for all of 2004. But this quote shows you how relative things are in the racing world, as well as just how much fortunes had fallen there.

“I’ll tell ya’”, noted [owner] Dick Crumley, “with the money they’re giving away now it’s hard to sit on the sidelines. A man can own a horse now at Monticello Raceway and make money (with it). Look here… Doc and I only had to plunk down $2500 for Ardick’s Buddy Boy and each week the horse races for at last a $2100 purse. If he keeps racing as well as he was we’ll be out in a month or two.”
For the record, Ardicks Buddy Boy is a 12 year old pacing gelding who has had eight starts with four wins, two seconds and two thirds and had earned $5754 prior to his race on March 24 [in which he ran second to earn another $525]. [US Trotting Association]
Yup, they’re just “giving away” those $2100 purses… someone who closely follows a circuit on which thoroughbred state-bred maidens race for over $40,000, it's just amazing to read something like that .

Another rarity back then was Sunday night racing, but you could find it at two Philadelphia area harness tracks, Liberty Bell and Brandywine. I lived in Philly in 1980-1, and frequented both of those long gone raceways, and had a particular fondness for Brandywine, which was just across the border in Delaware. It was a wonderful little track with a great country fair atmosphere, a 5/8th mile oval, and how many people recall that the maaarvelous Gene Hart, the late, legendary radio voice of the Philadelphia Flyers, called the races there, at least the years I attended. They would save their best cards for Sunday nights, highlighted by the Battle of the Brandywine, which attracted the top 3 yo pacers in the sport; I saw the great Niatross, who won 37 out of 39 races without ever being involved in a photo finish, win the race there in 1980.

I also had one of my biggest and most memorable scores there. There was a pacer named Saratoga Stan, who was a midlevel claiming type, and he would win with a late run from the very back of the pack. I’ve always loved horses like that, had cashed tickets on him at least a couple of times prior, and was most excited to see him in the entries on that night, especially with my brother, who had never been to a racetrack (and probably never has been since), in town visiting.

The thing about Saratoga Stan was that, unlike most other harness horses, he absolutely loved the very outside 8 post, from which he could hang back last and make his late run. When he drew inside, he’d be too close to the pace, inside of horses, and inevitably run up the track. Prior to that night at Brandywine, he had had a long string of races from inside posts, so his form looked awful. 99% of the time, if you see a pacer racing poorly from the inside and then move far outside, he’s an automatic throwout. Much to my delight, Saratoga Stan had his beloved 8 hole that night, anathema to most but a blessing for him. So while he was dismissed by most in the crowd, I excitedly informed my brother that the horse would be dead last all the way around until they approached the turn the final time, circle the field, and storm through the stretch to win. I watched as the odds drifted up to 15-1 or more as I recall, and we both got our bets down.

Sure enough, the race unfolded exactly as I knew it would, except that the gritty pacer seemed to wait even later than usual to start his move. But sure enough, he swept around the field 3 or 4 wide on the last turn, rallied down the lane and just got to the leader at the wire. After a long photo – no replays until after the races were official at tracks back then folks; imagine actually having to sweat those tight photos out for minutes that seemed like hours – they posted his number and I collected a big win bet as well as the exacta. More importantly, I looked like a total genius to my brother…because what good is hitting a big winner if you can’t impress somebody with it! (You may have noticed that you haven’t seen any such stories since I started writing this blog..)

I never saw Saratoga Stan race again. In fact, I never even saw his name in print. I would scan the entries week after week after week for months on end, at any harness track I could find entries for, but to this day I have no idea what his fate was; or if or where he ever raced again. But I’ll never forget him nor the Sunday nights spent at Brandywine. Ironically, the track met its doom in 1989 when the governor vetoed slot machines there. Today, Delaware racing is lush with slots money. Giving away $2100 purses at Monticello? Next Monday night at Dover Downs, they’ll be 15 harness races with total purses of over $275,000. But a short distance from the Pennsylvania border, a shopping mall sits where a little piece of racing heaven once stood.