Washington might not be a horse racing hotbed, but the small community in the Pacific Northwest has always loved its champions.
None, financially speaking, was as prolific as Saratoga Passage, who passed away unceremoniously Saturday of colic at the age of 23.
It was so unceremonious that the Thoroughbred Times, one of the three main online news sources for thoroughbred horse racing, didn't even pick up the story until Monday evening. And that's nothing. The Daily Racing Form hadn't posted the story as of its Monday evening update.
To boot, the Seattle Post Intelligencer confined the story to a paragraph at the end of a story about the Governor's Handicap, a race contested the same weekend at Washington's only thoroughbred track, Emerald Downs.
For a state that has always appeared to love its equine heroes, it's a sad sign.
Saratoga Passage, a chestnut gelding, was born at Crescent Harbor Farm in Oak Harbor, Wash in 1985. A son of Pirateer out of the mare Loridown, Saratoga Passage went on to outperform his breeding.
Loridown was the daughter of Sherri Ruler, who won Washington-bred three-year old filly of the year award during her racing career. However, none of Saratoga Passage's immediate bloodlines had won any major racing event.
He, of course, would.
At age two in 1987, he won the Tukwila Stakes and Gottstein Futurity at Longacres Park before shipping south to California for the Grade I Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita.
He was a late supplement to the Norfolk Stakes as he had not been nominated on time. This required his owners, Melvin and Helen Beck, to pay a $10,000 fee. Then, to complicate matters more, it rained. His connections had no idea how he would run on a muddy track.
As it turns out, he would run golden.
Saratoga Passage won the race, with a purse of over $300,000, by 2 ¼ lengths.
The horse that ran fourth, Success Express, would win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile later that October at Hollywood Park. Saratoga Passage, as well as the horses that finished second and third in the Norfolk, were not nominated for the championship race.
He was considered a contender for the 1988 Kentucky Derby as his three-year old year began. Not just had no Washington-bred ever won the Kentucky Derby but no Washington-bred had ever even run in the race.
Saratoga Passage was scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, but a stress fracture in his left front cannon bone was found. He would not race for another ten months.
With Washington's Triple Crown dreams dashed, Saratoga Passage resumed training near the end of the year and returned to the track in February. He also had a new trainer, future U.S. Thoroughbred Hall-of-Famer Bobby Frankel.
His four-year old season started poorly, including a last place finish in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park in June, but it wouldn't end the same.
Saratoga Passage was switched to the turf at Del Mar and won an allowance race. A few weeks later, he won the Grade I Eddie Read Handicap.
By winning that race, Saratoga Passage became not just the only Washington-bred to win a Grade I stakes race on both dirt and turf surface, he became the first to win multiple Grade I stakes races period.
He still is the only one to do so.
Unfortunately, it was the last victory for the rising star.
He finished a competitive third in the Grade I Oak Tree Invitational Handicap that autumn at Santa Anita. The winner, Hawkster, set a world record time for 1 ½ miles on the turf at 2:22 4/5. But that race was the beginning of the end.
He lost his first five races as a five-year old before he again set his sights on winning the Oak Tree Invitational Handicap.
In the race, he closed down the stretch to again finish third, but jockey Russell Baze noticed something was wrong and immediately pulled him up. He had injured the tendon in his left front leg. Saratoga Passage's racing career was over.
Saratoga Passage retired with six wins from 47 starts for total earnings of $818,212, $150,000 more than any other Washington-bred has won. He spent the final 18 years of his life at Crescent Harbor Farm where he was born.
Yet somehow, nobody noticed when he died.
Washington mourned when Captain Condo died in 1996.
Yes, there's no doubt Captain Condo was more popular than Saratoga Passage, but he wasn't that much more popular. The gray gelding won 30 of 70 lifetime races from 1985 until 1992, almost entirely at now-defunct Longacres Park, on his way to more than $500,000 in career earnings. When he died, articles flew everywhere.
There's barely a whisper for Saratoga Passage.
And maybe that makes sense.
On September 21, 1992, venerable Longacres Park in Renton, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, closed down after nearly six decades of racing. A near-record crowd of 23,258 people came out to watch the horses run one more time. The site had been sold to Boeing in 1990, but the corporation allowed the Emerald Racing Association to run races there for two more years before closing the facility.
And on that day, Washington thoroughbred racing began to die.
Before the final race, track announcer Gary Henson gave the crowd a chilling epitaph: “These horses belong to you. Listen to their final thunder.”
I'm sure he didn't know he was talking about the entire industry in Washington, not just Longacres Park.
Emerald Downs opened in suburban Seattle in 1996, returning racing to the western part of the state. Yakima Meadows near Spokane, which closed in 1995, was the only racing facility in the state in the interim.
Despite early promise, the track has struggled to stay competitive. Purses continue to sag and small field sizes make the product unappealing to gamblers.
The breeding industry is just as troubled.
In 2002, Washington had an 11 percent decline in the number of live foals, the largest mark of any of the 12 states with at least 1000 mares standing there. Oklahoma, Maryland, and Kentucky were the only other states to see a decrease of any margin. The previous year was even worse with a remarkable 21.5 percent decline from 2000, by far the worst mark in the nation.
Almost every year since 1992, the year Longacres closed, has seen a decline of some sort. Many years the decline has been staggering.
Washington once was one of the top breeding and racing states in the nation, along with Nebraska, Michigan, and Ohio. Like those states, it now could be passed off for dead.
If Saratoga Passage had the good fortune to die ten years ago, it would have made headlines in the state. Unfortunately, he didn't have the good sense.
Instead, Saratoga Passage, the champion gelding from Washington, decided to live out his days in peace, frolicking around, while the world around him died.
Washington, stand up and honor your hero like you did Captain Condo in 1996. Let him know you remember him.
Gary Henson seemed to say it best when he told Washington “these horses belong to you.” Unfortunately, it seems those sentiments fell on deaf ears.
The 23,258 people there listened to their final thunder, most likely unaware how final it would be. It was more final than death.
So please, rest in peace Saratoga Passage– rest in peace for the state that conveniently forgot you.