Everybody remembers their first time, don’t they?
In our college dorm on a late Saturday morning in late August, 1972, four of us were wondering what we could do that afternoon, two days before we’d begin our sophomore year at Albany State. Mike Brown had a car and one of us said, “Let’s go to Saratoga.”
That sounded cool to me. Growing up in Liberty, New York, in the heart of the Borscht Belt some 90 miles southwest of Albany, I’d been to a harness track, Monticello Raceway, but never seen Thoroughbreds race.
We checked a newspaper to make sure Saratoga was racing, got on the Northway and headed to Saratoga Springs, a 35-minute drive. Being brilliant about-to-be sophomores, we wound up at Saratoga Harness. We were stunned. There wasn’t a single car in the parking lot.
“There can’t be two tracks in one small city,” one of us – yes it was me – said. Wrong. There were, of course, two tracks. We eventually figured that out and drove to Saratoga Race Course. We parked about 10,000 miles from the track, and by the time we arrived it was the middle of the card.
Pooling our limited resources, we bought a track program to share. We couldn’t afford a copy of the Daily Racing Form. Actually, we could have, but that might have involved dipping into our beer money. And that wasn’t going to happen.
We split a couple of small bets and we looked forward to the feature race that afternoon, the Hopeful Stakes for two-year-olds. Mike and Howie split a show bet on a 99-1 shot who may still be out there. I was curious about the heavy favorite, Secretariat, and decided to watch the race rather than bet on or bet against the 3-10 favorite.
Secretariat had the outside post in a field of nine and got away dead last. Even I, despite my lack of sophistication as a racing fan, knew that was big trouble in a short race. But then, jockey Ronnie Turcotte cut Secretariat loose heading into the turn. Despite racing six-wide, he circled the entire field and had the lead by the time they hit the head of the stretch. And he never stopped accelerating, winning by five lengths. His move was breathtaking. Electrifying. And I was hooked for life.
Later, I’d realize Secretariat ran his middle quarter in a tick under :22 2/5 while six-wide on the turn. Ronnie would later tell me that Secretariat was the fastest horse on turns he’d ever ridden or seen. See, nearly 20 years after the Hopeful, Ronnie gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, to write his biography, the biography of the jockey who rode the greatest horse anyone has ever seen.
I count myself lucky to have seen him that afternoon in ‘72. After we got to the right track.
Ronnie’s biography, “The Will To Win,” is one of Eclipse Award-winner Bill Heller’s 23 books. You can purchase Bill’s latest two books, “Above It All,” a biography of another Hall of Fame jockey, Jose Santos, and “Captain Free-lance; The Check Is In The Mail,” at www.billhellerbooks.com. Bill will be signing “Above It All” at the Hall of Fame Friday morning from 10 a.m. to noon.