Cheering for the Underdog

One late August afternoon in 2002, my sister Sandy called me. “What are you doing this weekend? I think we should go to the track. It’s Travers Weekend and it will be packed!”

“The track,” officially known as Saratoga Race Course, is located in Saratoga Springs, New York, just 22 miles from where I live. The race course is dubbed by many to be the oldest sporting venue in the country. Each summer people of every social status travel to visit and gamble on the horses. The highlight of the meet is the Travers Stakes.

In 2002, I had lived in the Capital District for a decade but I had never been to the track. So on Travers Day, Sandy and I joined the tens of thousands who watched Jerry Bailey ride Medaglia d’Oro to victory. On the busiest day of the season, we wandered through the crowds, taking photos of the horses and the people, and making friends with “the boys from Connecticut.” And we won – both of us picking the trifecta in the Travers! My $1 bet brought back about $150 but you would have thought we had won a million dollars to see us celebrating.

The first thoroughbred race in Saratoga took place in 1863 during the United States Civil War, just one month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Racing has been held almost every year since. I have been to all Travers Stakes since 2002, except 2009 when I was in South Dakota for Ms. Wheelchair America.

I am not a horse expert. I am a very conservative gambler. In fact – my “rules” for wagering cause most of my friends who do follow racing or make their living handicapping to shake their heads in dismay. My rules are simple:

  1. Always bet on a “cat” horse. If the horse’s name has anything to do with cat (kitten, kitty, wildcat, tiger – you get the idea) I will throw a dollar on it.
  2. Always bet on a “weather” horse. If the horse’s name has a weather phenomenon it it (storm, windy, thunder – anything weather) I will bet it. Storm Cat? Bonus!
  3. Always bet on a horse whose name includes the name of a friend or family member. SandyInTheSun? Winner!
  4. Never follow my rules if you hope to win a substantial amount of money.
  5. Never go to the track with money you cannot afford to light on fire, because chances are you will not leave with it. So, if you aren’t financially prepared to leave it there, don’t bring it there.

I don’t go to the track to gamble. I go to the track because it is one of the best venues for people watching. If you enjoy watching human interactions, as I do, the track provides hours of entertainment – all for the $5 general admission fee. Spend a day there and you will see all types. There are the rich and famous, who walk around wearing fancy clothes and big hats. You will hear different languages as you stroll the grounds. Generations come to picnic in the backyard or around a table in the grandstand. Each day, a live band performs out back behind the clubhouse. There are food carts and vendors. It is also one of the last venues on earth (or at least the USA) to allow patrons to bring in coolers full of food and beverages. As long as it is not in a glass container, you can bring it in. My plastic water bottle holds one small bottle of tonic water, two shots of gin, three lime wedges and four ice cubes.  As my friend Archana said last week when she went to the track for the first time, “It’s like a carnival with horse racing!”

Saratoga Race Course has been dubbed the Graveyard of Champions. In fact, the term “upset” was coined here when Man O’War suffered his only defeat in twenty one starts at Saratoga, losing to a horse named Upset in the 1913 Sandford Stakes. Other notable “losers” include Gallant Fox, the 1930 Triple Crown winner, who was beaten by Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers Stakes (a real long shot at 100-1 odds) and Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner who was beaten by Onion. 

This year, for the first time since 1978, there was the potential for a Triple Crown winner to be racing in the Travers. As soon as American Pharoah won the Belmont, becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, people here began to ask, “Will he run in the Travers?” The debate continued for months, with tickets for this year’s Travers selling out even though it was not confirmed American Pharoah would be here. In fact it was not until last Sunday, six days before the big race, that the owners announced they were bringing American Pharoah to run in Saratoga.

I was going to Travers, with or without American Pharoah or the boys from Connecticut (who were unable to get tickets this year). So, Saturday morning I packed my cooler with snacks and mixed my gin and tonic in my water bottle. Thanks to my friend Kevin, I had free parking just a few blocks from the track. After visiting with him and his neighbor, I joined the crowds of people carrying their lawn chairs and coolers towards the entrance.

A lawn jockey stands before the fountain outside Saratoga Race Course. He is wearing blue silks with the letter "R" in orange print inside an orange circle. He holds a sign which reads "The Alabama, 8-16-2014, Stopchargingmaria, Owner: Repole Stable, Trainer: Todd A. Pletcher, Jockey: John Velazquez"
Jockey statues greet guests at the Wright Street gate.

The crowds continued to gather throughout the afternoon. The mood was festive. People wore Triple Crown t-shirts and hats. I even saw a man wearing an Egyptian Pharoah headpiece with his tank top, cargo shorts and loafers. Like I said, you see all kinds. Although I didn’t take a poll, I’m pretty certain most of the 50,000 fans were hoping for American Pharoah to win. Not me. I was secretly hoping to witness another historic defeat at the House of Upsets, another of the track’s nicknames.

Photo taken from a grandstand over Saratoga Race Course. Rows of people in the grandstand look down on the track. Horses are running on the turf past the jumbotron screen.
My view of the track from the grandstand.

Before long, it was time for the Travers Stakes. American Pharoah arrived to great fanfare. Fans in the grandstand rose and cheered as he sauntered onto the track. To be fair, he is a beautiful horse. But I didn’t put money on him. I picked Frosted, the gray horse starting in the sixth post position.

The horses gave the crowds a race. American Pharoah and Frosted were neck and neck for almost the entire race. But the only thing that matters is who crosses the finish line first. And at the end, it was Keen Ice, a long shot at 16-1 odds, who came up and beat American Pharoah by a head.

The crowds roared! People watched the replay on the monitors in disbelief. Did he really just lose? Where I sat, there were a few cheers from those who had gambled on the successful underdog. The local news showed some fans in tears, which is “a bit much of a muchness to me” as my host mother from Australia always said.

While American Pharoah didn’t win this race, it is difficult to call him a “loser.” He will be immortalized for being a Triple Crown winner. He has earned his trainers and owners millions of dollars. Victor Espinoza, his jockey, has found renewed fame. ABC just announced he will join the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I don’t know if that’s a “win” for Victor, but his run with American Pharoah had to help him get that gig.

In my eyes, Saratoga was a winner on Saturday too – beautiful weather, sold-out crowd, and another historic upset. I’m already making plans for next year’s Travers with the boys from Connecticut.

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