Major Odom was pacing. Arms akimbo and straw hat cocked, an unlit stogie stuck in a corner of his mouth, the 81-year-old trainer walked back and forth in the shadows of the elm trees in the Saratoga paddock. "Where the hell's my horse?" he said to no one in particular, his bushy gray eyebrows jumping up and down. Odom's given name is George, but no one ever calls him anything but Major. When he spoke, heads turned, looking for the missing filly. All the others had arrived in the saddling enclosure for the sixth race at Saratoga last Aug. 15, but there was no sign of Waggley. All at once, around a corner, she appeared, gliding across the paddock toward Odom, expanding in the light—a big, fine-boned gray filly with baby-seal eyes and a chorus girl's walk. Odom watched Waggley approach, then drew his hand across her back. "A little wet," he said. "Did she come over all right?"
"Didn't make a move," said her groom. Odom huddled with his jockey, Jean-Luc Samyn, reminding the rider that this race was a 6½-furlong sprint—half a furlong farther than Waggley really wanted to go—and that his filly would be breaking from the nine post, on the far outside: "She likes the outside, Jean, but you got a long way to go. But I think she's good, and she's training good, Just use your judgment."
Odom pushed through the shirt-sleeved crowd outside the paddock gate. A voice called out, "Good luck, Mr. Odom."
"That's what we need!" the old man said.
For folks born so blessed as Odom—and even for those with less luck—Saratoga is as close to God's heaven as one can get in the horse racing game. Santa Anita has its San Gabriel Mountains, Hialeah its flamingos and palms, and Belmont Park its style and elegance, but only Saratoga offers the 19th century. On Aug. 3, 1863, a filly called Lizzie W. won the first horse race ever run at Saratoga; this year, Aug. 3 was opening day for the track and the 125th anniversary of Lizzie W.
's victory. Saratoga is not only the oldest race meeting in the country but, after years of slumping handle and attendance, it has emerged as one of the most prosperous and popular venues in American racing—rich in tradition, money and history.
Red Smith's standard directions for getting to the track still work: From New York City, you drive north on the Thruway for about 175 miles, turn off at Exit 14, take Union Avenue heading west—and go back about 100 years. The racetrack is right there on the left, just beyond the old wrought-iron fence, past the picnic tables and the white-fenced paddock, just beyond the high wooden beams and peppermint-striped awnings that adorn the clubhouse and grandstand. Last summer, no one fit more comfortably into the old-time decor than Major Odom.
Odom first came to Saratoga Springs way back in '08, when he was two years old. His dad, George Sr., was a Hall of Fame rider who turned to training when he quit the saddle. As a boy, the Major rode his father's stable pony around town over rutted dusty streets on blazing August days. He would gallop the pony in and out among the tasseled surreys and parasols, the plumed hats and the derbies that paraded the streets. He would ride up past the two big hotels, the Grand Union and the United States, in the middle of town; down past the big Victorian houses that squatted along Union Avenue and North Broadway.
Odom could hear the train whistles in the night. He saw the arrival of the racehorses at the Spa, watched men opening the sliding boxcar doors and unloading the animals, one by one. He watched as the horses walked the mile to the track, manes blowing, while grooms held fast to the shanks tethered to the halter rings. All the big horses came to Saratoga that way, heels clicking down the boxcar ramps and stepping off through town: Man o' War and Exterminator, Gallant Fox and Discovery, Top Flight and Equipoise. He saw Upset beat Man o' War, Jim Dandy whip Gallant Fox; he saw the birth of the Graveyard of Favorites, which is what horsemen still call Saratoga.
"I saw 'em," Major Odom said. Saw 'em all at Saratoga, saw all the big guns that came through town; heard the whips snapping and the irons clanging and the distant pounding of hooves: Native Dancer and Nashua, Kelso and Forego, Ruffian, Secretariat, Damascus and Buckpasser, Alydar and Affirmed, Ridan and Jaipur. Trained a lot of winners at Saratoga himself, Major Odom did, back in the glory days.
"I won the Spinaway Stakes three years in a row," he said of the streak he put together from 1945 to '47 in Saratoga's premier race for 2-year-old fillies. "And I won a Travers here [in 1947] with Young Peter, but that was way back.... I like the old days, but then, I'm old myself. I still miss the casinos. In the 1930s and '40s, people would watch the races here and then go home, rest up, put on a tuxedo and go to the casinos down by the lake to gamble. Play roulette and dice and dance all night! The horses always liked it up here, too. They perked right up; it's the air and the water. The water's just as cold and clear as it can be. Delicious! The horses are happier here. So are the people. Lots of good times. Yeah, I used to win a lot of races here."
Waggley was the Major's final hope to win one more, the only horse he had in training last August. Long gone were the days when he trained 40 horses out of two barns at the Spa. Now he was up at 6 a.m., trudging to the track to care for one—he and his wife, Mary, bred and owned the filly, so she was family—but soon there would be none.
"This is my last year training at Saratoga," he said. "It's my last year training, period. I'll sell her in the fall. This is it for me. I'm not as frisky as I used to be. I've been coming up here for almost 80 years. Hey, 60 years I was trainin' those animals! Awful long time. Long enough."
Waggley stepped into the starting gate. Mary and the Major turned to the track. As the gates burst open, Waggley bobbled, her head dipping down. "She stumbled coming out!" cried Mary. The filly regained her footing, and Samyn set sail for the lead down the backside. Lying third, she raced to the throat of Rally For Justice, shot past her, and quickly ran down Wan'a Fella on the far turn. Major shook his head. "I wish he'd save her a little bit," he said.
Waggley turned for home in front by two, after running a half in :45[1/5]. Key Bid took out after her, slowly cutting into Waggley's lead. Inside the 16th pole, Key Bid caught her and drove on past to win by a neck. The race was just a tad too far for Waggley.
Odom grimaced. "Sonofabitch!" he growled. "If she hadn't stumbled, she'd have won."
Mary's voice sang out above the din: "They'll never beat her at six furlongs!"
"Next time," the Major said. "We'll run her one more time up here. She'll be ready."
Trainers have been saying that at Saratoga for years, of course, since that day four weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, when a one-eyed black jockey named Sewell—his given name was not recorded—rode Lizzie W. to victory in that first race here. Sewell and the filly soon disappeared, but Saratoga Springs has never been the same. By that time, the town was already known as America's Queen of the Spas, a resort town, a watering hole and a gambling hell that was beginning to attract the rich from New York City.
All of this happened, not incidentally, as the result of a series of geological changes that occurred some 300 million years ago, when a thin crust of shale still lay intact just under the land that is now Saratoga Springs. Beneath that crust was a deposit of limestone. Over millions of years, rainwater percolated through the shale, growing acidic as it picked up iron sulfate and other minerals from the rock. When the acidic water reached the limestone and mixed with it, the water, in chemical reaction, became naturally carbonated. For untold years the shale crust acted as a kind of giant cap covering the bubbling water.
Kenneth Johnson, the chairman of the geology department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, says that no one is certain precisely when or why—perhaps it was the same stresses that forced the emergence of the Adirondack Mountains—but at some point that layer of shale ruptured, forming a fault line. The carbonated waters began oozing up through the crack in the shale, hissing through punctures all along the fault line, and it was thus that a series of natural events led to the birth of the springs.
The Iroquois called this land Saraghoga, "place of the swift water," and it was around the sparkling mineral springs that the destiny of the town was ultimately shaped. In the 19th century the springs brought lame and dyspeptic tourists "looking for the cure" to Saratoga to drink the water and to bathe in it. To accommodate them, the big hotels arose, and to keep and entertain them, the gamblers came, men like the legendary John Morrissey, a dark-eyed, bare-knuckled, Tammany Hall politician and roughneck who had reigned for five years (1853-58) as the American heavyweight boxing champion. Morrissey built the first Saratoga racetrack, and after the Civil War he built and ran the town's first big casino.
Thus the Spa began selling more than the baths that sparkled and the water that tasted kind of funny. Indeed, in the 65 years that followed the end of the Civil War—except for two years. 1911 and 1912, when a moral fervor gripped New York and the state passed a law banning horse racing—Saratoga Springs was the biggest gambling resort in America. By the Gay Nineties it had become a summer mecca for rich planters from Georgia and the Carolinas and for bankers and brokers from New York.
One of them, the sportsman William Collins Whitney, helped make the town a playground for the Social Register set and for the idle rich, and for those who came floating in their wake—the big gamblers and the assorted brigands, the prostitutes and the pimps. Indeed, Saratoga may have been the place, in America at least, where simple extravagance first grew into wretched excess.
This is the Saratoga where James Todhunter Sloan, the American-born jockey who had gone to England in 1897 to ride for royalty—he was the Steve Cauthen of his day—returned to Saratoga to ride a Whitney horse and pulled up to the door of the United States Hotel with 10 trunks and two English valets. This is the town where Diamond Jim Brady, who wore diamond buttons even on his underwear, came every summer, squiring Lillian Russell to the racetrack and casinos. And this is where the newly renovated Grand Union, then the largest hotel in the world (824 rooms), reopened in 1874 with a dining hall so vast that it seated 1,400 people at a time. "The waiters had to run from the kitchen to the far end with the scrambled eggs or else they'd be cold when they got there," says Saratoga native George Bolster.
This is the town where men came to play the horses by day and the tables by night. Gambling was against state
law, but the gamblers took care of the cops and the pols, and the track and casinos grew fatter. Now and then there was an outbreak of moral outrage among the bluenoses of Saratoga, but the flow of gambling gold into the town every August was so rich and so steady that the work of the devil was usually happily condoned. Reggie Halpern, 82, a bookmaker in the '30s, still talks about the days when he used to travel to Saratoga on the Cavanagh Special, a train from Grand Central Station that was ridden almost exclusively by bookmakers.
When the train pulled into the old Saratoga station, hundreds of local citizens met the bookies as though they were conquering soldiers coming home from war. Speaking of another age, at times nostalgically, Halpern says, "We were greeted by the natives waving handkerchiefs; they held up boards that said: SINGLE ROOM $25 A MONTH. I stayed at the Grand Union—three dollars a night; lunch, 50 cents; dinner, a dollar—and we all walked to the racetrack in the afternoon. Al Jolson was always there, but he never performed at the clubs. He loved to gamble. Jack Benny used to like to sit on the porch of the Grand Union. Bing Crosby came up with Don Ameche. I remember Harry Richman, with his tails, cane and top hat, singing Puttin' On the Ritz. Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis played the Piping Rock Club."
Lewis, a nightclub comedian, was a legendary gambler known more for losing than for winning. A notorious horseplayer, he was fond of saying of Saratoga, "I like to come here every year to visit my money." They still tell the story of the morning when Lewis, who was staying in the United States Hotel in a room overlooking the railroad tracks, woke up early because a train groaned past his window, spouting steam and rattling the walls. Groggy, Lewis called the front desk and asked. "What time does this room leave for Chicago?"
Most of Saratoga's regular summer guests still come back each year to visit their money. Though the casinos have been closed since 1951, when state and federal probes revealed their ties to racketeers, they were not the only game in town when the last race was over. Fasig-Tipton, the thoroughbred auction house, has been selling yearlings at Saratoga since 1917, in what the firm's president, John M.S. Finney, once called "the biggest crapshoot." In this game, however, the shooter did not always crap out. In 1918, Sam Riddle gave $5,000 at Saratoga—a sizable sum for a yearling in those days—for an electrifying chestnut son of Fair Play. Riddle named the colt Man o' War. Today, in the course of a three-day select sale at its pavilion across from the racetrack, Fasig-Tipton continues to sell some of the most royally bred babies in America.
Last Aug. 11, the first night of the sale, 49-year-old Marvin Little Jr. waited through the final minutes of the biggest night of his life. Little had come to this sale every year since 1962, first as a groom mucking stalls for $7 a day, later as the manager of Newstead Farm in northern Virginia, long one of the leading consignors at Saratoga. Little had never brought a horse of his own to a Saratoga auction—the blood ran too rich for his income—but he had gambled and obviously scored the year before.
At a sale in Keeneland in January 1986, Little had stretched his resources and paid $58,000 for a 13-year-old broodmare named Fearless Queen. She was in foal to an untested stallion prospect. Dixieland Band, a stakes-winning son of the great Northern Dancer. "You know, $58,000 is a big hunk of money for somebody like me," Little says. "But I'm a gambler. The mare could have died at birth. The foal could have been crooked. But you have to take a shot. Life is a gamble."
On Feb. 21, 1986, Fearless Queen gave birth to a daughter. The mare did not die, and the baby was not crooked. In fact, she was a beauty, and she started Little to dreaming. For 19 years he had brought those royally bred New-stead yearlings to Saratoga, which was fine enough, but he had always wanted to fetch a yearling of his own to the Spa. Now was his chance. If the filly was relatively weak on pedigree, she more than made up for it in looks, and so he entered her in the Saratoga sale. When Fasig-Tipton selected her—not just any thoroughbred yearling can be entered in the sale—Little started shining up his filly for the big night.
Many prospective buyers came by to see her, among them D. Wayne Lukas, whose eye for yearlings had already helped make him the most successful horse trainer in the country. After looking her over on the morning of the sale, Lukas said to Little, quietly, "A beautiful filly."
Little did not know what to expect when she walked into the ring. Standing in front of her stall, with a chaw of Red Man in his mouth, the man was dreaming again. "She could bring $100,000," Little said. "Then again, she could bring $25,000. Or $150,000. You never know till you sell 'em. No matter what she sells for, I've still got the mare. And she's back in foal to Dixieland Band."
Marvin Little laughed thinking about it. "I'm an old hillbilly from the back hills of Kentucky," he said. "You better believe I'm the poorest man selling a horse in this sale. But that's what made America great. I paid $58,000 for the mare in foal. I think this filly's gonna bring what I paid for the mare carrying her." He paused. "I hope," he said.
The handler led the chestnut filly into the sales ring, and the bidding rose up like a child's balloon into the night sky—beginning at $20,000, slowly, and then rising higher and faster, past $50,000 and $100,000 and $125,000, then over $150,000 and $160,000. Little held his breath; his eyes were popping. Lukas made the final bid: The auctioneer brought the hammer down at $185,000.
"What do ya think of that?" Little crowed back at the barn. "A hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars! That's makin' money, ain't it? And I still got the mare! I don't know what I'll do with all that money. I'll probably take some of it and buy another mare."
Of course, the nature of the gambling beast changes dramatically as you move from the sales ring at Fasig-Tipton to the betting windows of the racetrack across the street. Because of the illustrious names of the high rollers who have played the horses here, Saratoga has spawned more tales of truly epic gambling than any racetrack in America.
One afternoon 86 years ago, before the advent of income tax, John (Bet-a-Million) Gates, the barbed-wire baron, lost a staggering $400,000 playing the horses at Saratoga. On another day, according to Saratoga historian George Waller, Gates won so much money on a single bet that he used a grocery basket to carry his cash away. Old-time gamblers still recall the day in the late 1930s when Art Rooney, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, all but swept the card at Saratoga and took a fortune from the track. Over the years, whenever he has been asked about that day, Rooney has steadfastly refused to discuss it.
"Art Rooney won six straight races here and walked out of the betting ring with $105,000," says Halpern, who made book at Saratoga at the time. "I know. I took some of the action."
And then there was Subway Sam Rosoff, the builder of much of the New York City subway system, who played the horses and the bon vivant with equal passion at Saratoga. "Rosoff always rented a house with an open porch on Union Avenue across from the racetrack," says Halpern. "He would leave the track after the fifth race. When the public walked by his house after the races, there was Subway Sam on his porch, with half a dozen beautiful showgirls, having cocktails served by a butler. A lot of people copied that scene on Union Avenue over the years. That's what made Saratoga such a memorable place."
If the gamblers today are no longer flamboyant high rollers in the tradition of Gates and Rosoff, they are more observant and methodical in their approach to the game. As in the past, they are not known by the names their mothers gave them. At Saratoga last summer, there were Al the Wise Guy and Ronnie the School Teacher, Big Stewie and Big Richie and Handsome Jimmy, with his custom-tailored suits. And there was Paul Cornman, also known as the Source, a 35-year-old former clocker whose celebrity as a horseplayer had become such that bettors accosted him for his opinions and often followed him to the windows to eavesdrop on his bets.
Four years before, Cornman was earning $50 a day as a handicapping teacher at the track and making occasional appearances on New York television programs to analyze the day's races. He was scratching and scuffling to make a living. "I was basically a degenerate horseplayer," Cornman says. "I would go on TV once a week and talk like I knew what was going on, then pull out of the parking lot in a 1968 Impala."
That summer at Saratoga he made the pivotal decision of his life. A run of good fortune at the windows had fattened his bankroll to $20,000, and he had had his eye on a horse named Win, an unknown gelding who ran as common as a goat on the dirt but who fought like a ferret on the turf. Midway through the Saratoga meeting in 1983, Cornman approached Win's owner-trainer, Sally Bailie, and told her he wanted to buy the horse. Bailie's price was $60,000. Unable to afford the whole horse, he bought one third of him for his $20,000. Most horseplayers confine themselves to expressing their opinions at the betting windows. Not Cornman. Very boldly he had invested virtually all he had in the horse. "It was the first time I was at peace with myself as a horseplayer," he says. "Things were finally coming around. I had never, never, never thought about buying a horse."
Suddenly he owned a third of one. Win ended up taking two consecutive runnings of the $75,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap, the premier grass race at Saratoga, in 1984 and '85. With his winnings, Cornman bought a majority interest in another horse, Exclusive Partner, who also appeared to be more ambitious on the turf than on the dirt. Cornman and his half-dozen fellow investors bought Exclusive Partner for $80,000, and in 1986 the 4-year-old colt won the majority owner his third consecutive Bernard Baruch Handicap. By the time Win was laid up with an injury in 1985, he had earned almost $1.5 million, of which Cornman took home almost $500,000. And Exclusive Partner had won $325,000 before Cornman and his group sold him in 1986 for $400,000.
Voila! The Source was suddenly rich and respectable—and compellingly enigmatic. More a horseplayer than a handicapper, he does not rely so much on speed figures or other state-of-the-art gambling angles as he does on an animal's appearance, which he scrutinizes in the paddock or the post parade. Last summer Cornman was as reliable as a watch, materializing at the south end of the paddock fence, appearing out of nowhere to watch how the horses moved, to check their odds, to measure post positions against any track bias.
Late in the meeting, on Aug. 26, Cornman was suffering damnably. He was betting a lot of exactas and was hitting his share of winners, but the horses he picked to finish second were running like dogs. He began playing it safe. "When I used to go to baseball camp," he said, "and I'd get into a slump, the coaches used to say, 'Just hit everything up the middle.' That's all I'm trying to do now."
He was down $800 after the fifth race that day, and in the sixth he bet $900, including a $150 exacta—no, he could not resist—that would turn out to pay $48.40 for a $2 bet. The sixth turned him around, giving him a profit of $1,930 going into the seventh. That was a race on which Cornman had a definite opinion, but he was playing cautiously, still trying to stroke it up the middle. "I'll bet $500 on this," Cornman said. "If I blow it, I'm still up $1,400."
The seventh was a nine-furlong race on the grass, and he liked two horses, including a 15-1 shot named Dawn o' The Dance. "He's coming into form and looks good," said Cornman. Arguing against his own better judgment, he also liked El Jefe, a front-runner who had shown a disconcerting tendency to quit or tire—to hang, as they say—in the last part of a race. Nonetheless, Cornman bet $400 on El Jefe to win, at $3.50 to $1, another $80 on an El Jefe-Dawn o' The Dance exacta, and $20 on that exacta reversed.
It was painful to watch. El Jefe dashed to the lead out of the gate, with Dawn o' The Dance racing last until the turn for home. Watching El Jefe come off the final turn in front, Corn-man said, "If he ever gets a mile and an eighth, it will be now."
But no. Deep in the stretch, tiring, El Jefe shortened stride. Cornman saw it coming and cried: "What did I tell you? El Jefe's a hangin' bum!" In the final strides, Dawn o' The Dance came roaring past them all to win it by almost two lengths. El Jefe finished second. Cornman scolded himself loudly: "I knew he couldn't win. Everything on paper tells you he's going to win, but you know he's going to lose because he's El Jefe and he's a hangin' bum!"
So Cornman lost his $400 win bet and the $80 exacta, but the Dawn o' The Dance-El Jefe exacta paid $192.40. His $20 bet on that earned him $1,924—considerably less than he would have pocketed had El Jefe won—giving him a profit for the day of $3,354. "At least he hung on for second," Cornman said. "I should be glad for small favors."
Moments later Cornman was back at the paddock to watch the horses saddle for the eighth.
Saratoga was never a place of leisure for Cornman—never a place to have an early dinner and relax, to kick back and swill cocktails like Subway Sam, watching the late people stroll by and in turn being watched by them. Indeed, there has always been a touch of the surreal about that twilight scene in Saratoga, with the crowds pouring out of the track at 6 p.m. and disappearing into the quaint 19th-century houses that they rent for the racing season—houses with spacious porches and columns, high-pitched roofs and ornamental gables, places that have balustrades and dormers and stained-glass windows.
"They are all like doll-houses," says trainer LeRoy Jolley. "You sit home and watch television and expect a big hand to come in the back door and start rearranging the furniture."
Liz Tippett lived in such homes in town for years, in one place or another, but last summer she divided time between her little farm east of Saratoga and her 70-foot boat, The Adventurer, on which she had arrived at a nearby Hudson River port after a sentimental journey from New York.
Mary Elizabeth Altemus Whitney Tippett was 81 last summer, and though she was mostly confined to a wheelchair, she made all the major balls and parties and even showed up one night at the yearling sales, wearing a fur coat. She also went to the track to watch her horses run. Sixty years before, she had been the belle of the ball in American high society, reputedly one of the most beautiful women in the land. "Smashing" is how an old acquaintance. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 75, described her.
Payne Whitney, one of New York's most prominent sportsmen, saw her one afternoon in a paddock at Saratoga and told his son, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, "That's the girl I want you to marry." They were wed on Sept. 5, 1930, and during most of the ensuing decade they spent August in Saratoga. In fact, they finally moved into one of the most spectacular estates in town—a big white wedding cake of a mansion with columns in front, broad lawns all around and its own private stables and training track adjoining the grounds of Saratoga race course. Living there, Liz Whitney came to represent, more than anyone else, the mystique of money and glamour that has surrounded Saratoga since the rich took over soon after the Civil War.
She did things with style and flair. Early one morning she showed up at the racetrack to watch the Whitney horses work, still dressed in the evening gown she had worn the night before and accompanied by a small kennel of dogs. "Why not?" she said last year. "We were out at the nightclubs till three or four in the morning. You'd go home, put a coat on, and go see your horses work."
That is not what she remembers best about her years at the Spa, however. For all the memories of childhood and horses and nights on the town, she recalls most vividly the day she walked out on her husband there. "He was too much a ladies' man for me. I'll tell you that," she said. "It was so stupid! But when you're young and you're sort of crazy about somebody and you see him out with Tallulah Bankhead and all those bums, I...I couldn't take it anymore, that's all. He brought Loretta Young to the house one weekend! But Tallulah was the worst. I just got tired of it. That's when I decided that Reno was the place for me."
Not knowing what to do or where to go, she look the advice of Harry Hopkins, one of Franklin Roosevelt's advisers, and sailed down the Hudson to seethe president at Hyde Park. "I look a boat down there," she said. "That was a vivid day, going down there and talking to Franklin for all that time. He knew what was going on with Jock. He told me, 'Don't worry. I'll get you a lawyer." Franklin was so nice. There are a lot of memories for me up here, some painful, quite a bit. But you have to do the best you can with what you've got left."
Which is exactly what Marvin Little and Major Odom did. With the proceeds of last year's yearling sale, Little bought himself a farm in Paris, Ky., and a young $33,000 broodmare by Roberto out of Kelly's Day. A week later the mare's full brother—an un-raced 2-year-old named Brian's Time—broke his maiden en route to a Florida Derby victory and a fine showing in the Triple Crown. Little had struck gold again.
And on Aug. 23, in the fifth race at Saratoga, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares, the Major saddled Waggley for the last time. This was it for him, and what an ending it was. The gray bullet chased another speedball, Al's Helen, for a quarter mile, then bounded past her to open two lengths, which is what she won by as she drove across the finish. After all those years and all those winners, the Major had a final victory with his final starter. The old man smiled, lit up his cigar and snugged his hat down on his head.
"A good way to wind it up and get out, isn't it?" he said.