A born leader
by Susan van Dyke
aratoga Passage is Washingtons all
time leading money earner and only grade one stakes winning male. He was named
after the spectacular view seen from his breeders Melvin and Helen Becks
Oak Harbor home. And spectacular is one of the many glowing adjectives that can
be used to describe both the horse and his accomplishments.
1981, Melvin and Helen journeyed south from Oak Harbor to Renton to look for a
broodmare at the WTBAs annual December sale. The Becks had recently
purchased a small five-acre farm and decided, after visiting a few farms in
Enumclaw while accompanying a friend on his search for a mare, that a broodmare
or two would go well with the cattle they planned to raise.
Among the record 556 horses and shares consigned to
the WTBA Winter Mixed Sale was an unraced three-year-old filly named Loridown,
in foal on an April 21 cover to the young Dr. Fager stallion Family Physician.
The Becks signed the sales ticket for the chestnut filly (Hip 435), paying
$5,500 for their future two-time Washington broodmare of the year. She was only
the second broodmare the Becks had ever owned.
Bred by Lou Sekora and Pete Bakamus, Loridown was from
the first crop of Barrydown, a son of Intentionally bred at Darby Dan Farm.
Barrydown won or placed in seven stakes, including victories in the Los Robles
and Spokane Handicaps while running for Maurice and Kathleen Hitchcocks
White Swan Stable in the early 1970s. The $147,685 earner was conditioned by
Washington Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jim Penney.(In fact, many state Hall of
Famers would have an impact on Saratoga Passages career.)
As a yearling, Loridown had first gone through the WTBA
sales ring when, consigned by White River Farm, Rainier Stables, agent, she had
been purchased for $6,500 by Jack McCann. The McCanns named the filly in honor
of their daughter, but unfortunately she never ran after developing respiratory
problems serious enough to send her to the veterinary college at Washington
Out of Washington champion
three-year-old filly Sherri Ruler, Loridown was a half-sister to the good
Washington stakes mare Louises Pride. This is also the family of
Washington champion and local favorite racemare Silky Steel, whose descendants
would later add their share of state championships to the female line.
Loridown foaled a Family Physician colt the following
spring and she was then sent to nearby Wildwood Farm to be bred to stakes
winner Pirateer, in whom the Becks had a share.
From the first crop of the great European star Roberto,
Pirateer also became his initial stakes winner after taking the To Market
Stakes at Hawthorne as a juvenile. Stakes-placed at three and four at Keystone
(now Philadelphia Park) and Penn National, Pirateer won seven of his 43 starts
and placed in another 11 of his outings, earning $108,483, before retiring to
stud at the Bill and Barbara Blacks nursery in 1981 for a fee of $2,500.
Loridowns first offspring by Pirateer was
named Pirates Marque. He won two races at two and earned $8,785. Her
second was Saratoga Passage. Loridown would later produce eight more foals,
including $280,894 four-time stakes winner Diglett, by Alnaab; stakes-placed
Cape Flattery, by Ruhlmann; and winner Misty Down, a daughter of Handsome One
who would produce Washington champion juvenile filly Candles n Moonlite, stakes
winner Cromarty Bay, stakes-placed Taylor James and two other winners. (Note:
For further information on this illustrious family see Ellen Parkers
profile on *Grillette, from whom these many topflight runners stem, in the May
2004 issue of the Washington Thoroughbred.)
A Racing Heritage
up in the horse industry. Her father George Cromar had bred, raised and trained
horses, racing from Washington to Oregon to Montana to Mexico until his death
at age 57 in 1961. His brother Jim had served as his assistant trainer. Helen
and her sister Louise walked hots around the manure piles as teenagers.
Melvin was born in Nebraska, but has spent most of his
life living in Oregon and Washington.
Sunnygrand Rodeo Grounds used to lie between Sunnyside and Grandview in central
Washington. One of its features was a half-mile dirt track. As a young man Beck
ponied racehorses for local Thoroughbred trainers before they headed off to
Portland Meadows. He was dating Helen at the time, and also galloped a few head
for his future father-in-law.
Beck joined the Navy
in 1952 and spent his first 10 years in the enlisted ranks. He was then
commissioned as an officer, retiring as a Navy commander in 1982 after spending
most of his 30 years and four months of service in naval aviation.
The Becks raised four children: Robert, Dona, Michael
and Jeffrey; have six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They will be
celebrating 53 years of marriage in September.
Room with a View
foaled her future champion in early February of 1985 at the Becks
Crescent Harbor Farm, located on the north end of Whidbey Island and only a
glance away from the waterway called Saratoga Passage, which separates Whidbey
from Camano Island. Helen nicknamed the strapping chestnut foal Sam because
he tore around the paddocks like a surface-to-air missile.
Saratoga Passage was sent back to Wildwood Farm where
he was broken by Chris Dryden in the fall of his yearling year. After which he
was moved to Bridle Trails in Bellevue for a month, and then on to Reber Ranch
in Kent to prepare for his debut at Longacres.
Becks had decided to employ Northwest Orient Airlines pilot Robert Leonard, who
had been moonlighting as a successful trainer for over 20 years, after he had
visited their farm to look at another horse. Leonard was known for using
different methods and had a reputation for conditioning horses who liked to run
a route of ground.
Im halfway, maybe,
between interval training and regular training, Leonard remarked during
Saratoga Passages early career. He further shared his philosophy:
You have to get so much work into them in order to make them a whole
horse, to make them fit, that it requires many miles under them.
The Becks had formed a partnership to race their
steadily growing racehorse. Saratoga I Stable was a syndicate formed of owners
from Whidbey Island. In addition to the Becks, the syndicate was composed of
plumber Ed Taylor and his wife Barbara; John and Gloria Ratcliff, who owned
electronic stores; retired Navy commander Michael Reilly; Carrie Gordon, wife
of another Navy commander; optometrist Bruce Platt; Ed Cabrian, who was
involved in selling real estate; and Jerry Ansuini, who made his living in
insurance. Only the Taylors and Ansuini had any previous experience in
Handsome . . . and Big
Saratoga Passage made his auspicious debut on August
21, 1987 in a six furlong maiden special weight race at Longacres, running
fourth with Vicky Aragon (Baze) in the irons. The race had proven eventful for
the first-time starter, as after clipping heels, he and Aragon were almost
knocked over the rail, twice. The young rider had been the leading jockey at
the Renton track in 1986 and would lead the way in wins again in 1988. Thirteen
days later the now 16.3 hand gelding was second in his next attempt, again a
six furlong maiden allowance race, and Joey Steiner had enthusiastically picked
up the mount. It would mark the last time he would start in a race under a
Next up on the runners dance card was
the $30,000 Tukwila Stakes at eight furlongs. Coming from off the pace,
Saratoga Passage was a convincing three-length winner over Thank You Quaker in
the September 13 race. Trainer Leonard was out of town for the colts
maiden victory, working his day job as a pilot, but had called
Steiner from Hawaii that morning with instructions.
Steiner said after the victory, Hes a real
big horse and he took to the distance very well.
After he ran second by two lengths to Nohawbee in the
$105,240 Longacres Lads Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, Saratoga Passage was among 14
runners which entered the starting gate for the $156,300 Joe Gottstein Futurity
on October 11. Leonard decided to put blinkers on the gelding for the 8 1/2
We wanted him to focus his
attention on whats going on in front of him, said the trainer.
He pays too much attention to whats happening beside him.
The new equipment helped the Saratoga I
colorbearer focus on the business at hand, as he pulled away from his
challengers to take the 47th running of the Gottstein by five lengths after
circling the field from the back of the pack in a quick 22 seconds flat second
In spite of his record of two wins
and two seconds in five starts, he lost meet honors as best two-year-old runner
to Nohawbee, who had defeated him twice and didnt run in the Gottstein.
Sams revenge would only be one race away.
From Firs to Pines
among the stately Evergreen fir trees of Washington, Saratoga Passage proceeded
to set sail for the pines of California the Norfolk pines.
Before Saratoga Passage had even emerged victorious in
the Gottstein (which the Becks were confident he would win), the Oak Harbor
couple had been scouring sources to find a race for later that fall for their
future stable champion. After looking at past winners, race times, etc., they
zeroed in on the Norfolk Stakes-G1, but they elected not to tell their plans to
anyone except friend Ken Jones. Owner, breeder, trainer Jones (who was later
responsible for 1987 Washington horse of the year Gallant Sailor) had happened
to drop by on the night the Becks made their decision, and he agreed the
Norfolk was the appropriate next race for Sam. Beck told Leonard of the plan as
Saratoga Passage was on his way to the paddock for the Gottstein.
The 18th running of the grade one Norfolk Stakes for
two-year-olds was to be held on October 31 during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa
Anita. The Saratoga I Stable had to pay a $10,000 supplement for their star
runner to get into the 1 1/16 miles stakes. And then he almost didnt
The fall rains had hit southern
California. A week before the $200,000-added stakes (which grossed $301,900),
the big chestnut gelding had worked in 1:06 and appeared to be unable to
handle the going, said Leonard, and by the Halloween race day the weather
had not only not improved, but heavy rains had set in. Plan B was
put into effect when Leonard added jar caulks to the runners equipment.
Steiner was once more in the saddle. Favorite
Success Express, Jose Santos astride, was first out of the gate, with Purdue
King and Washington Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens right on his heels. The
Washington team was meanwhile content to trail five of the six other runners
competing for the first furlongs. By the half-mile pole, Saratoga Passage was
in fourth place, about seven lengths off leader Success Express. By the
three-quarters marker, three lengths separated Saratoga Passage from the lead,
and at the head of the stretch that distance had diminished to only one, as he
took steady aim on the two front runners. At the sixteenth pole, Saratoga
Passage took over the number one spot and drew off to a 2 1/4 length victory in
a time of 1:45 over the sloppy track. Purdue King held second by a head over
In a footnote to the finishers of the
Norfolk, none of the first three finishers were nominated for the
Breeders Cup Juvenile-G1, but Eugene Kleins fourth place runner
Success Express was. The son of Hold Your Peace came away with a 1 3/4 length
victory in that Hollywood Park held event.
noted in an article in the Thoroughbred of California, Saratoga
Passages ability in the mud may have stemmed from 1955 champion
two-year-old Nail, who sired his third dam Double Sherry. A son of French-bred
*Nirgal, Nail had a serious penchant for off tracks. Among the stakes wins this
mudlark scored on an off track were victories in the Futurity and Remsen
Stakes, and a win in the Pimlico Futurity, where a heavy snowfall had turned
the Maryland tracks surface to ankle deep mud.
After his winning effort, Saratoga Passage was turned
out at Kleins Del Rayo Racing Stables at Rancho Santa Fe, for a two month
vacation before hitting the Triple Crown trail. There he would be in charge of
his old friend Chris Dryden, who had moved from breaking yearlings at Wildwood
Farm to managing the San Diego area training center.
For his superior efforts, Saratoga Passage was named
Washingtons champion two-year-old and horse of the year for 1987. On the
yearly Experimental Free Handicap, the Saratoga I Stable runner was assigned
120 pounds, six pounds behind champion Forty Niner and seventh among all colts
and gelding in his crop.
The Three-year-old Season That Wasnt
After the Norfolk, Las Vegass Frontier Race and
Sports Book had set Saratoga Passages odds for the 1988 Kentucky Derby-G1
at 15-to-one. There was great excitement among Washington race enthusiasts, as
there had never been a Washington-bred runner compete in the May classic.
The January 1988 issue of the Washington
Thoroughbred featured an article on dosage, spurred on no doubt by the hope
of Saratoga Passages planned trip to Louisville. Using the stallions then
awarded Chef-de-Race status, Saratoga Passages dosage profile was
eight (brilliant) six (intermediate) 13 (classic) one
(solid) zero (professional) points, with a center of distribution of .75
and a dosage index of 2.73.
Saratoga Passage began
and ended his sophomore campaign with a sixth place finish in the 1 1/16 miles
San Felipe Stakes-G1 on March 20. He was found to have a respiratory infection
after the race and put on antibiotics.
hoped the infection would be cleared by the April 23 Arkansas Derby-G1.
Arkansas sounds like the perfect place to go, as we are looking for a
dust-free location away from the city, said the trainer. But to
everyones dismay, the chestnut runner had encountered a more serious
problem. He had developed a stress fracture in his left front cannon bone and
the only thing to do was put him on the sidelines and let it heal naturally. He
was turned out at Delta Farm, located near San Diego, for seven months.
Ritorna Vincitor! (Return a Conqueror)
When Saratoga Passage returned to the races on February
1, 1989, someone new was saddling the runner. Eclipse Award winning and future
National Racing Hall of Fame trainer Robert Frankel was now in charge of the
geldings race career.
The Becks did not
think it would be practical for Leonard to train Sam in California with his
busy flight schedule, nor did they feel fully confident of being able to find
their star performer the right races by long distance. It just came down to a
matter of logistics, and so Leonard and Saratoga Passage parted company.
The Becks took their jobs as managing owners very
seriously. They flew south to Del Mar to start the interview process after
spending hours pouring over trainer statistics. They were determined to go with
one of the better and more successful trainers on the competitive southern
Jane Dunn, who with her
ex-husband had trained a Belmont Stakes-G1 starter and was now the manager of
Delta Farm where Saratoga Passage had spent his latest R & R,
had strongly recommended Robert Frankel. Though the brash New Yorker was felt
by some to be difficult, Dunn felt they would find him very knowledgeable about
not only each individual in his barn, but those in his fellow
conditioners stables as well.
interviewing several trainers for their runners four-year-old campaign,
both Becks came away enthused about the Frankel operation and Helen had been
impressed with the fire in Frankels eyes.
Frankel later remarked, This is the first time I
have ever been interviewed for a job.
Saratoga I Stable of owners did not find him difficult at all.
Saratoga Passages four-year-old campaign began
with a neck victory in a mile allowance race at Santa Anita. After breaking
last in the field of nine, Saratoga Passage, with Eddie Delahoussaye in the
irons, came up with a strong effort to pass Gorky just before the wire and win
his fourth race in a time of 1:35 3/5 with a 90 speed rating. The Cajun-bred
rider would form a partnership with the chestnut gelding in 10 of his final 15
starts, and the only times he would forsake him was when prior commitments had
to be served.
One key to the runner was to not
over run him. This is one big horse, but he trains light, said
Frankel. He doesnt need a lot of work.
A month later, Saratoga Passage faced a talented field
in the $60,000 Viking Spirit Stakes at Santa Anita, finishing third in the race
won by future Santa Anita Handicap-G1 winner Ruhlmann. Saratoga Passage earned
a 97 speed rating for his efforts.
On April 2,
Saratoga Passage finished third in the nine furlong San Bernardino Handicap-G2,
his first effort at the distance. Rider Delahoussaye remarked after the race,
He ran a good race. The others [Ruhlmann and Lively One] just ran
A change of scenery and coasts was
on the agenda for the Whidbey Island-foaled runner, as his next start came in
the $700,000 Pimlico Special on May 13 at 1 5/16 miles in Maryland. He finished
sixth, 7 1/2 lengths behind the winning 1988 champion older male runner
Back in southern California, he ran
sixth and last in the $300,000 Californian Stakes-G1 at Hollywood Park on June
4 after Frankel had decided that Delahoussaye needed to have the runner closer
to the pace than was his style. He later admitted his tactical error.
Where the Turf (Performer) Meets the Surf
Summer racing in southern California means a journey
south to Del Mar and its ocean breezes. There were other changes in the wind
for Saratoga Passage, as he was about to make his first official start on the
turf. On July 31, the now 17-hands plus gelding took to the turf like a goose
does to water, and though the official win margin was only a head for the mile
allowance, it was an eye-catching victory.
Two weeks later, Frankels newly switched-to-grass
runner faced eight others in the nine furlong Eddie Read Handicap-G1 with its
purse of $275,250. Only four pounds separated the field, with favorite Silver
Circus assigned a highweight of 118. Saratoga Passage carried 116, including
Equipped with blinkers, Saratoga
Passage broke slowly and then maintained his usual place at the back of the
pack for the early furlongs. At the top of the stretch, he weaved his way
through horses and closed with an impressive run to defeat Skip Out Front by 2
1/4 lengths in a time of 1:49 over a firm turf.
this date, Saratoga Passage is still the only Washington-bred to ever win two
grade one events and one of a small handful of top runners nationally that
would prove successful over both turf and dirt at a grade one level.
I was kicking myself for not putting him on the
turf before this, but maybe its for the best, said a jubilant
Frankel. We havent used him up, and weve got a terrific grass
horse here. Hes bred for it; hes got the foot for it; and hes
got the style for it. The trainer also felt he might be getting a little
sore on the dirt.
At the start of the year,
Saratoga Passage ranked 10th among Washington-bred earners. After his Read
victory, he was number one among all statebreds with $593,712.
After the race, Saratoga Passages owners and
trainer were considering both the Arlington Million-G1 and the Del Mar
Invitational-G2 as the next stop for their rejuvenated runner, but the home
court advantage won out and Saratoga Passages next outing was in the
September 4 Del Mar race.
The 1 3/8 miles Del Mar
Invitational proved to be an exciting, if bit disappointing, outing for the
Washington clan. Gary Stevens was chosen to replace Eddie D. aboard Saratoga
Passage for the race, as the Cajun had an commitment to ride Bisque in the
stakes, who was later ironically scratched the morning of the race due to an
injury. In a tight finish, Charles Whittingham-trained Payant (Arg)
[Whittinghams 225th stakes winner] rushed up on the outside to pass
nine-to-five favorite Saratoga Passage at the wire and win by a head, with the
Washington-bred only another head in front of the lone mare, No Review, in the
blanket finish. Stevens had kept Saratoga Passage uncharacteristically close to
the, albeit slow, pace. At the quarter and half-mile posts he had the chestnut
gelding running fourth, only 2 1/2 lengths off the pace at each call. The next
two calls (six and eight furlongs) found the runner in the unusual position of
second place and Saratoga Passage was the clear leader in the stretch before
going down to the narrow loss.
after the race, I wasnt surprised to be up close with the pace as
slow as it was [:48 4/5, 1:13 2/5]. My horse relaxed well and finished good. He
was unlucky to lose.
Autumn at Oak Tree
Passage returned to Santa Anita for the fall 1989 meeting with his sights set
on the 12 furlong Oak Tree Invitational Handicap-G1 on October 14. Eight other
top turf runners faced him in the $500,000 event. Favorite among them was
Hawkster, who had earlier that year won the Secretariat Stakes-G1 over
Arlington Parks turf course. With Delahoussaye back in the saddle,
Saratoga Passage put in a solid effort, finishing third behind Hawkster, with
Russell Baze up and Pay the Butler, ridden by Gary Stevens. The 2:22 4/5 time
established a new world record for the distance. Saratoga Passage earned
$60,000 for his efforts, but also came out of the race with another stress
fracture. This time it was decided to have surgery performed on the leg. At the
same time chips in both front ankles were removed.
He re-injured himself just enough for us to lay
him up for a few months, said Beck. Frankel said that we should
give him four months off, but we have decided to give him six months off,
With such a season, he was most
deservedly honored with his second Washington horse of the year title and was
named champion handicap horse as well. On the Free Handicap for three-year-old
and up male turf runners, Saratoga Passage was given 116 pounds, 10 pounds
below champion Steinlein (GB).
name wasnt seen in the entries until the following June, when he was
entered in the $75,000 Fiesta Handicap at Hollywood Park. He finished fourth in
the 1 1/16 miles turf event, beaten 4 1/2 lengths in his comeback.
Two weeks later, on July 13, the Washington-bred star
was extended to 10 furlongs in the $75,000 Jim Murray Stakes, where he again
ran fourth, but was beaten just 1 1/2 lengths for all of it. Laffit Pincay, Jr.
was aboard Saratoga Passage for both races.
for his second try in the Eddie Read, Saratoga Passage could only manage to
take fifth money, though beaten only three lengths. Corey Black was along for
Next up, the Arlington Million-G1.
Eleven of the worlds greatest turf runners went forward in the 10 furlong
stakes run on August 20. Saratoga Passage and rider Pat Day finished eighth,
only the fourth time he had finished out of the top five placements.
Returning to Del Mar, and reunited with Delahoussaye,
the partners finished third in a 1 1/16 mile turf allowance on September 12.
After the race, Delahoussaye came up to Beck and said, Sorry boss, I
messed this one up. We should have won.
the Oak Tree meet once more looming on the horizon, the Saratoga I Stable
runner once again journeyed north for what was to unfortunately be the gallant
geldings final career outing.
faced the starter for the 22nd running of the Oak Tree Invitational-G1.
Saratoga Passage had fellow Washington Racing Hall of Famer Russell Baze
astride for the 12 furlong turf race. Saratoga Passage held fifth place until
the final call when he closed gamely from the outside to finish third to winner
Rial (Arg) and runner-up Eradicate (GB), but he was pulled up in distress
after the finish line. He had bowed the tendon in his left front leg.
It really was a surprise, related
Beck. Hes not had a pimple on him all year long and Russell [Baze]
said he was going great down the backstretch and then he moved to the leaders
when he kissed to him. When he got them, thats as far as he got. He just
hung right there. After a race he usually finishes strong, but this time he
pulled himself up right at the wire. They had to van him back to the
It marked the end of an illustrious
and exciting race career. The $60,000 he earned for his courageous third place
finish vaulted him to $800,212. Its a record no other Washington-bred has
yet come close to breaking. But as with all good stories, theres more to
this heros tale.
Paux de Deux
After the injury
and convalescing for a period of time at Delta Farm, Saratoga Passage was sent
to Wildwood Farm to finish his recovery. In the spring following his injury,
horsewoman Jane Hiner visited the farm to check on a nurse mare foal she was
considering buying. Jane and her husband, Eric Hiner, had boarded a few
Thoroughbred mares at the Blacks picturesque farm and Jane would
sometimes help with the foaling. She had known Sam as a youngster. The avid
rider also helped to re-home retired racehorses. While visiting the farm, farm
manager Debbie Lang told Jane that the Becks were looking for a special home
for their retired champion. After seeing the spark between Jane and Sam,
Saratoga I Stable offered Saratoga Passage to Jane and then supported the
gelding for a year while he continued to recover from his injured tendon.
The Hiners now live on a six-acre farm in Olympia. Jane
and Sam successfully competed in dressage for 10 years, reaching fourth level
competition and bringing home many trophies and ribbons.
Today at 20 years of age, the grand gelding is mainly
retired to the life of ease. He does occasionally perform in a musical dressage
duo (paux de deux from the ballet term for a dance for two) with another
ex-racehorse, but mainly for entertainment and not ribbons.
His pasture buddy is a three-year-old Friesian gelding
that Hiner is currently training. They must make quite a striking duo, the big
chestnut Thoroughbred gelding and the even larger black warmblood romping
together in the field.
Though time has taken its
toll, the fire that made Saratoga Passage such a great racehorse and athlete is
He is a wonderful horse named Sam to
those who know him best, but to his many fans and admirers Saratoga Passage
will always be a racing legend, and just plain spectacular.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.