Cup of Coffee: Bonus Coverage

Cheryl Johnson stopped in front of the old feed store on East Avenue on a breezy, sunny Tuesday morning.

“Hi guys. Welcome back.”

The longtime Saratoga resident showed off a Saratoga giveaway baseball hat. Old school. Khaki and red. Well, she wasn’t showing off the hat, she was showing off the art. D. Wayne Lukas. The Hall of Fame trainer’s signature looped across the brim.

“You know who I’m rooting for…”

The 88-year-old Hall of Famer rolls into Saratoga with Preakness winner Seize The Grey for the 156th Belmont Stakes.

Welcome to Saratoga, er Belmont, 2024.

Joe, Tom and I thanked Johnson for the early welcoming, reminisced about her late husband, Tom’s old track coach and old-school racing fan, Randy Johnson, and walked to the East Avenue entrance at about 9 o’clock Tuesday morning. Yeah, we missed a few sets as we waded tepidly into the June meet. We’ll dive in soon enough. Actually, you’re reading this, so I guess it’s one deadline down, four racing days and three papers to go. Yeah, we dove in.

Four days of bonus racing at Saratoga. Four days of bonus coverage from The Special.

Tuesday morning, inside the stable gate, it seemed a long way away. Without a full barn, Brendan Walsh and Roger Horgan drove out. We waved. We contemplated the golf cart parked by the clocker’s stand, then chose to continue the walk, more like a saunter. Deadlines don’t register two days out. It was quiet. Green grass. Shuttered barns. Scattered horses. The tumbleweeds of June. A few diehard owners, a couple part-timers mixed with the everyday lifers. Sellitto. Alvarado. Lorna. Kantarmaci. Mott. Clement. And Lukas.

After stopping for a meeting at Mott’s corner – Doc Richardson would be proud – we split up. I said hello to Erma Scott, strolled past Mott’s tack room, past an MG on blocks and its engine on the ground, around strewn beer cans from the night before and along the backside of Nick Zito’s longheld, long-forgotten barn.

Turning the corner, I scanned Lukas’ familiar spot, thinking about a story and an opening. There were no green and white WL plaques, no hanging baskets of flowers, no dutifulness of assistant Bas Nicholl, no hustle, no bustle. Just the Hall of Famer sitting in a chair. In a DWL hat and a DWL vest, dark sunglasses, spit-shined cowboy boots, long-sleeve shirt with creases that could cut diamonds, and his Preakness winner standing behind a webbing, his lead pony behind another one. I looked north, south, east, west. There wasn’t a person within a Hail Mary throw.

I said good morning to this year’s Preakness-winning trainer, moved a giveaway magazine from a mounting block and hit record on voice recorder that hadn’t seen action since Labor Day.

We talked for 1 hour, 11 minutes and 23 seconds. Well, Lukas talked, and I listened. Roping steers and racing ponies. Miles and marriages. Breaks and banks. Thunder Gulch and Terlingua. Broadway Blaze and Seize The Grey.

By the end, a truck delivering wood chips arrived (wood chips…wrong barn, buddy), Lukas’ crew returned from getting licensed and the morning switched to afternoon.

I thanked Lukas and walked back to the office, a long, slow, thought-careening, shade-catching walk.

You’ll read parts of our conversation in this issue and in the next three issues and, surely, again in Saratoga when the real thing gets going. I typed all afternoon, stopping and starting around office visits from Migliore to Mary Eddy. It wound up being 6,383 words. A morning manifesto if you will.

As for now, The Belmont Special or The Saratoga Special or whatever we decide to call it is revving up for a four-day run to celebrate the Belmont Stakes at Saratoga. It’s far from an appetizer or an afterthought.

Casa Creed makes his domestic 8-year-old debut in the Poker. Idiomatic aims to keep her six-race win streak rolling in the Acorn. White Abarrio begins his defense in the Met Mile. A 12-horse brouhaha in the Woody Stephens. Al Riffa and Measured Time add international flags to the Manhattan. And the next best thing to a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes. Nine hours, 17 minutes – a Manhattan area code of racing.

And, of course, rain is looming. But as Lukas said Tuesday morning, you’ve got a choice.

“When I do those corporate speeches, I don’t talk about horses, I talk about what we’re talking about right there. I tell people if you have a passion for anything, you eliminate all the excuses. You’ll go without lunch, you’ll drive all night, you’ll go without sleep, you eliminate any excuse if you’ve got the passion,” Lukas said. “That’s what drives you but you need to get it and you need to find it. The biggest decision you’re ever going to make in your life is your attitude. You’ve got to make it early in the morning and make the right one. That’s the biggest one you’ll ever make.”

Lukas has woken up every morning and made that big choice. That choice to keep going, keep looking ahead, keep searching for the next winner, keep getting on the road.

The journey continues Saturday.

Read The Saratoga Special.