Thursday, August 11, 2011

ah, beautiful oklahoma.

As the Sun Rises, Two Legends Murmur

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Horses who race at Saratoga Race Course work out on the shady Oklahoma training track.

Published: August 10, 2011
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CloseLinkedinDiggMySpacePermalink SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The horses look like shadows at dawn as they cross Union Avenue, stopping traffic to shuttle between the Saratoga Race Course on the west side of the street and a timeless oasis on its east side: the Oklahoma training track. Think of it as a Club Med for horsemen who prefer spending their working vacation with their own kind amid an oasis that evokes a bygone year.

Postcards From Saratoga Springs
The Value Man

A weeklong series of vignettes depicting the characters, sights and sounds of Saratoga Race Track.
It was here that Saratoga’s first meeting was held in 1863, a four-day racing festival where horseplayers bet with bookies and watched from their carriages. The Oklahoma is tree-lined and perpetually shady, as are the original board-and-batten barns — elegantly splintered — that form clusters of villages around its perimeter. It is quiet, too, save for the geese honking from its infield and the head-clearing snorts of racehorses circling the track.

Sunshine finally shines on the United Nations of horsemen represented here. Jockey Eddie Castro carries on an animated conversation in Spanish with two exercise riders as three clip-clop their horses along a wooded trail leading to the racetrack’s gap for workouts. There, Christophe Clement, a Frenchman, offers instructions to a brigade of riders in his native language. Irish brogues and Queen’s English echo in the stillness.

The Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was on horseback Wednesday morning, sitting tall in the saddle, his black leather vest and chaps flapping as the wind blew a cool breath on an already-pleasant 68-degree morning. He was leading a set of horses out for morning gallops but was in no hurry to put them through their paces. Lukas was off to a slow start here, managing a single victory in 30 starts.

He stopped at the sight of a fellow Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, who was leaning against the rail at the clubhouse. Baffert was watching his colt Prayer for Relief gallop on the deep track.

“None of them in my barn can run anyway,” Lukas said.

Make no mistake — these two are cowboys. Lukas, 75, is from Wisconsin, where as a boy he bought horses en route to the slaughterhouse, cleaned them up, trained them and sold them for a profit. The white-haired Baffert began as a jockey, a bad one by his own admission, in his native New Mexico.

“That’s my big horse, the West Virginia Derby winner,” Baffert said, tongue firmly in cheek.

Between them, Lukas, 75, and Baffert, 58, have won 22 legs of the Triple Crown — the much-coveted classics — including seven victories in the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s got a nice neck,” Lukas offered. “I like the way he moves, Bob. He’s moving really well.”

The two watched Prayer for Relief stride out in silence. Neither of them moved.

Suddenly, a herd of horses and their riders poured onto the track in a rainbow of saddlecloths bearing the initials of their trainers. There was the NPZ logo of the Hall of Famer Nick Zito, the TAP of Todd Pletcher and the CC of Clement, all bouncing by.

Lukas and Baffert remained still.

“I’ve been stabled here for 32 summers,” Lukas said. “There’s no place like it, especially on mornings like these.”

“We’re going to bury you there in the infield when you die, Wayne,” Baffert said, smiling.

“No, put me right here on the track,” Lukas countered. “Just harrow me under.”

Then, he turned his pony back to the track and his work.

“I’d be happy,” he called back over his shoulder, “harrowed right under here.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 11, 2011, on page B15 of the New York edition with the headline: As the Sun Rises, Two Legends Murmur.
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