The heads, some topped with hats of all the familiar race track variety – baseball caps, flowery Churchill Downs wannabes, and bowlers – melted into an endless puddle, like some kindergarten mural with a toteboard backdrop.
Thousands were huddled against the fencing, with little in common, save for their shared view of the starting gate and, assuredly, betting slips in hand. They were all sweating together, excitedly anticipating the promise of magnificence. Or, more aptly, the promise of seeing her perform magnificently. He knew she was bound to do just that. But he also knew the giant, laughable secret that all those with and without hats didn’t: The Princess of Sylmar was also about to inspire. He knew this because we had witnessed it over and over again. He knew this because she is his horse.
We sat in the owner’s section, perched above the masses. Just trying to accept the enormity of it all forced me to grin, which eased my volatile anxiety, yet only for a moment. My father sat inches in front of me and if my nerves were jello, his were jello ingredients splattered in the bowl before being chilled. I stretched up, too nervous to sit. He sat, with knees too weak to stand.
“Dad, look around. Can you believe all th-”
He cut me off with a sharp “No” and lifted his binoculars. It was if his talking about it would somehow snatch everything away. It would wake him. And the dream was just too damn good to leave.
Saratoga Race Course wasn’t much different back in 1957. Sure there were no cell phones pinned to shoulders, but the chiseled jockeys still looked like mini superheroes in their bright silks shining perfectly patterned in maroons, golds, aquas, and reds. The grandstand aroma was a deep mixture of beer and cigars and despair and hot dogs and hope. And among the bright-eyed masses sucking in the f-words and smoke was a boy with a flat top and a calculator for a brain. He was just eight years old and his name was Ed Stanco.
The boy was a fan of Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn and the rest of the Milwaukee Braves. Yet even as he cheerfully willed his favorite team to their first and only World Series title, Saratoga’s track owned his little heart. Especially the lawn jockeys. Sprinkled throughout the race track grounds, these glistening statues bearing signs of the winning elite just fascinated the boy. His affection for this place was deep. The kind that keeps you up each night, beaming, desperately begging time to speed up so you can catch a glimpse of your love once more the following day.
He already structured numbers easier than most and Saratoga brought those numbers to life. They told a story, whether it be about a horse or a trainer or a jockey. Who was he? What was she capable of? Why did he win? The program became his first probability textbook.
Ed grew his mathematics proficiency into an education and then a career. He married Ina – the other love of his life – had two children, aced his actuarial exams, then had a third. Which seemed only natural. Throughout history, all true math whizzes are obsessed with the number three.
Despite the corporate ascension and family obligations, Ed’s rare free time still belonged to the sport of kings. He devoured books about horse racing and watched meets from across the country. Soon he developed advanced analytical programs for predicting race results on his laptop. Lucrative earnings followed. But the boy was now a man, the flat top look replaced by a bald top and glasses. Handicapping was almost easy for him, but it was joyless.
Late into the night, when the man focused on formulas and dove deep into calculations, he convinced himself that he was looking for a winner where no one else could find one. However, he was really searching for a way to feel like an eight year old staring whimsically at the program. The loss of childhood happiness pains us all, as we grow our families and our wealth and our beer bellies.
And then something changed.
A friend was having success as an owner and presented the idea of Ed owning a horse as well. Brilliant. He couldn’t suit up as the third baseman for the Braves, but he could play with the ponies. He quickly jumped in a syndicate with some other owners and one race in, he was smitten. Once he found his way into his first winner’s circle, the boy — all 200-plus pounds and 50 years of him — was back.
Ed purchased a handful of horses through the years and somehow convinced the great Todd Pletcher to train them. At first glance, the world’s greatest trainer and the Lilliputian owner seemed like an odd pairing. However, they were each dedicated and passionate, truly loved the track, and recognized and respected each other’s intelligence. They also shared a common trait: Patience. And in the win-as-quickly-and-as-often-as-possible world of horse racing, patience is treated like an STD. No one wants to even think about it. But when Pletcher offered up advice, Ed took it.
Soon the horses were winning consistently and, just like everything else he devoted to in life, Ed’s success as an owner was calculated, gradual, and fruitful.
When Ed tried breeding a horse for the first time, he couldn’t be calculated or gradual. He spent months researching the perfect mate for his mare, Storm Dixie, and found it in a horse named Grand Slam, but the day before the breeding was to occur, Grand Slam was injured. The stud farm offered up another option for the breeding, Majestic Warrior, but there was no time for the number cruncher to crunch the numbers on his history. Ed, who was ever so fond of averting risk, had to make a gut-check decision about whether he should breed Storm Dixie with Majestic Warrior on that day. He made the right one.
Princess of Sylmar was foaled shortly thereafter.
After losing her first time on the track, the Princess won and won and won and won. The little filly with the white stripe running down her face was addicted to winning, effortlessly and continuously finding a way to burst ahead down the back stretch. With each win, the crowd in attendance knew they were in the midst of something special, much in the same way Ed was enamored by the lawn jockeys of Saratoga. This horse had magnetism.
Ed brought her to the Kentucky Oaks – the premiere race for three-year old fillies in the country – and, despite being a 38-1 longshot, she won. He took her to Saratoga for the Coaching Club American Oaks – another top race for three-year old fillies – and she won. So when he took her back to Saratoga for the Alabama Stakes, thousands upon thousands came out just to watch her win again. Ed had probably seen 50 Alabama Stakes races in his life, but none with his horse running in them, with the winner promised his very own lawn jockey, silks and all.
And that brings us back to the owner’s box. Back to the nervousness. Back to the dream.
Turns out, there was nothing to be nervous about. Ed exhaled next to my seven-year old daughter after seeing his filly dominate the Alabama Stakes through both spectacles and binoculars. He gave the videocameras in the winner’s circle some chuckles and quotes and he bounced out of the Saratoga Race Course without feeling his feet touch the ground. On his way towards the parking lot, he stopped briefly to stare at the lawn jockey holding the Alabama Stakes placard. He took off his beige hat with the words Princess of Sylmar emblazoned in purple across the front and tossed it onto the head of the statue.
It was the kind of thing a little boy would do.