I love when a plan comes together, even more so when it involves friends and horse racing. Spurred on by a suggestion from my good friend, Donna Wakefield, the plan was to attend the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack, the only one of the three NYRA racetracks in my home state of New York, that I had not visited in all my years of following horse racing.
Before I go any further, let me say, that when I meet people and inform them that I'm from New York, many of them automatically assume it's New York City, where Aqueduct is located. Nothing wrong with the assumption, I love the city having visited a few times. However, I'm 500 miles away (Niagara Falls) from the "Big Apple", so my trips to New York City are infrequent and are usually reserved for either, Yankees baseball or joining the Horse Racing Nation crew for the Belmont Stakes.
My planning started five months earlier when I decided to go, and the countdown began. At first, it was triple digits for days remaining, but before you could say "They're Off" the time had arrived.
Reaching New York by plane Friday morning, April 7th, I was met at the airport by Donna, and we sped off to the backstretch of Belmont Park to spend a few hours watching morning workouts, visiting some horses and feeding them carrots. I nicknamed Donna,"The Queen", because everywhere we went, she was recognized, acknowledged and respected. She's a lifelong New Yorker, a horse lover, fanatical horse racing fan and owner, that has spent countless hours at both Belmont and Aqueduct.
We then headed over to Aqueduct for the afternoon card of racing, but we had set aside some time for a tour of the facility before the races commenced. I didn't know what to expect, but one thing I immediately noticed when gazing around this place where so many of the greatest horses in thoroughbred history competed, was how expansive the inside is. I couldn't stop commenting how "big this place is". I was reminded that Aqueduct dates back to 1894, and a new clubhouse was constructed in 1941. Despite losing about one-third of the grandstand to an on-site casino, there is still plenty of space.
Of course, Donna knew the layout by heart and was most excited to show me the Wood Memorial Hall-of-Fame, a wall on the second floor where win pictures of every past Wood winner are displayed. Her favorite, and mine too, is Damascus, and we gravitated simultaneously to his picture.
We finished our tour on the ground floor, or as Donna referred to it as "Inside the Belly of Aqueduct", a section the general public doesn't get to see or even know exits. Places like the racing office, bookkeeper, and stewards office, jockeys room, executive offices, licensing office, video room. This is the guts of the entire operation and I was privy to it, thanks to my dear friend. All the while wandering through the halls down below, I was reminded through paintings and pictures on the walls of the people and horses that made this place and sport great.
Despite the cool weather, we did go out and watch some races. However, we took up position in the video room for much of the day, enjoying the company of trainers who popped in and out to watch the races on the monitor. Many of them that visited, had a horse running in a race, so, being just a few steps from the paddock, the video room was very convenient for a trainer to come to and watch their horse. One of the more notable names that made an appearance was, Kiaran McLaughlin.
One of the stewards, the legendary Braulio Baeza, happened to stop in for coffee. Nudging Donna to tell her who it was, she nudged back and responded "I know who it is". How foolish of me, of course "The Queen" would know, but in all my excitement, I had forgotten. However, I was quickly forgiven. I took advantage of the situation and approached Mr. Baeza, asking for his autograph. He was a true gentleman and gladly signed my racing form.
On Day 2, as we drove to Aqueduct, incredible excitement was coursing through our systems. Not only was it Wood Memorial Day, with a tremendous undercard of graded stakes, but for Donna, her feelings were in overdrive due to the fact she and her partners had a horse running in the G2 Gazelle, the race immediately following the Wood. I was super excited about that too. Here I was, after months of waiting to visit Aqueduct for my very first time, see my first Wood Memorial, my friend has a horse racing in a big race and I'm going to be there to see it.
As Donna and I watched the afternoon races, we met up with many friends, some of them hers, some of them mine, including HRN's own Matt Shifman. Some of the people were mutual friends from social media. And for me, a few of them I was meeting for the first time. Such a thrill it is for me to meet people. The companionship of our friends and the laughter we shared and enjoyed helped ease the tension Donna was feeling, or at least I hope it did.
As an owner myself, I know how exciting it is just to have a horse in on race day, but to have one in for such a big race, and a Kentucky Oaks prep race to boot, well, I couldn't fathom that, and I know I'd be a bundle of nerves too.
Race by race came and went, now it was time for race 10, the big one, the Wood Memorial. Donna and I visited the paddock to watch the horses make their way in. Two horses that garnered most of the attention all week were Battalion Runner and Irish War Cry. The former was making his stakes debut, the latter, who won the Holy Bull Stakes, before throwing in a dud in the Fountain of Youth, was looking to redeem himself. They didn't disappoint as they ran 1-2 with Irish War Cry winning and receiving 100 points, with Battalion runner getting 40 points, enough for both to earn a berth to the Kentucky Derby. It was a thrill for me to watch the Wood at the rail, directly across from the finish line, something I'll always remember.
Back down to the paddock for the Gazelle, Rimanisempreforte, the horse that Donna owns in partnership, was being readied. Rima, for short, was coming off two wins in a row and was facing some top competition. These were fillies looking to get to the Kentucky Oaks. We knew it was a tough spot, but hey, like I told Donna, this is a game you have to take chances in. With 3-yo olds, especially a horse that won as impressively as she did in her last two starts, you don't really know what you have ability wise until you test them.
The test for Rima was a difficult one. She was bumped at the start and squeezed back, and on a track that was speed favoring, it was over for her right there. The Gazelle was won authoritatively by Miss Sky Warrior, by a margin of 13-lengths. Rima finished 7th in the nine horse field, but the young filly did the best she could, and that's all you can ask for from any athlete. She came back in good order and there will be plenty of other spots for her to win down the line.
After the race, the tension and anxiety Donna was feeling all day were no longer. Disappointed, yes, but very proud. Not many people can boast about having a horse in a graded stakes, I know I can't and we laughed out loud about it. My good friend is one up on me in that department.
We capped off the day watching the Santa Anita Derby in the video room before heading out. And just like that, everything was over.
For me, it was an incredible two-days of racing, mixed in with fun, laughter, highs and lows. Many people made this trip a very special one for me, with Donna spearheading it all. As for the others, there's too many names to list in this column, but when they read this, they know who they are and what their contributions meant to me during my Aqueduct visit.
As we drove away from Aqueduct, I realized the big 'A' stood for Awesome. It certainly was for me. Do I plan on going back. I sure do, because I love when a plan comes together with friends and horse racing.