Nine rows high. Three rows wide. And maybe five rows long. Leaning. A few have fallen like shards of glaciers into the sea. Shrink-wrapped, in stark white plastic bags, the tower of wood shavings delivered, an order with a slip and a bill. They lie in wait outside an empty barn, ready to be dispensed into empty stalls. Anywhere else, you’d walk past them and never notice.
Tom Law texted a photo. It felt like a clog falling into your cereal, a fly in your coffee, a knife to the heart.
Jimmy Toner is not in Saratoga.
No racehorse-turned-pony grazing in the courtyard. No two-door BMW along the white two-rail wooden fence. No orange polos. No hanging flowers. No flower beds. No turf fillies with Graustark, Ribot and Roberto deep in their veins. No leather bridles. No straw pillows, the last vestiges of a forgotten era. No JJT plaques hanging on the half doors at the barn along the curb, the fender at the intersection where all traffic funnels. Where Pat Kelly rides his bike to fetch a Special. Where Tom Albertrani follows Sadler’s Joy to and from the track each morning. Where John Dickson, Moon and Manu line up vans at a misplaced loading chute. Where dog walkers and hot walkers, bluebloods and blacksmiths, turf writers and turf workers, gawkers and hawkers turn the corner. Left and then right to Union, right and straight to Nelson.
It’s the bottleneck of the Saratoga backstretch. And it’s Toner’s bottleneck. He took over this spot when Mike Freeman moved so many years ago. It’s where Toner has worn ruts in the dirt worrying about champion Memories Of Silver and other stalwarts, from Wonder Again and Winter Memories to Hunter O’Riley and Hawkish. He can’t remember when, well, he can’t remember the year when he moved into the belly of the beast, a place that is chaotic and copacetic all at the same time. Like all horse trainers, Toner tells time by horses.
“I had Buzz My Bell in there…”
The dark bay daughter of Drone won the Adirondack and the Spinaway. You look it up, 1983, and do the math. Thirty-seven years.
Cal Ripken has taken a night off.
This year, Toner will keep his 12 horses bedded deep at Belmont Park instead of bedded deep at Saratoga. He’ll ship five or six, including a daughter of Winter Memories, to run and return.
“It’s strange not making it up there. We’re just behind schedule with everything. To go to that expense to go up there now didn’t make sense,” Toner said Wednesday morning. “I’m surprised how many people did go, but a lot of people didn’t go.
I don’t even remember the last time I didn’t go. I’ve got a lot of good memories of Saratoga but, it just didn’t work out this year.”
Toner met Saratoga in 1960. Traveling for New Jersey-based Bill Mitchell, Toner came north with a handful of horses, found a spot in the Phipps barn on the Oklahoma side. Little Tumbler finished second in the Schuylerville and Toner won a race with “Little George or Something George.”
Living with outrider Jim Dailey and assistant starter Bart Sweeney, Toner drove a four-door Chevy Malibu, walked to Broadway for a drink and a bite to eat at Lillian’s, maybe caught a movie in the big white building next to the firehouse on Broadway.
“I was just a kid looking around, I didn’t know anybody then. It was pretty neat, pretty cool to be up there at that time. I had a new car, a good job, life was good,” Toner said. “Saratoga then was nothing, just a quiet little town, just a street. We went to the movies there and saw Psycho. People were running out of the movie theatre.”
The next summer, Toner was dragged off to Suffolk Downs.
“That was a big drop off,” Toner said.
It took him awhile, but Toner returned to Saratoga and never left, bandying about the backstretch, first in the barn near the starting gate, then in a barn with Billy Turner when he had Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
“What a job those guys did with that horse, they had that horse out all day long, walking with the pony, they did some job,” Toner said. “Everybody used to come looking for Billy Turner and I would say, ‘No, Toner…’ ”
They would eventually come looking for Toner at his tree-shaded barn where Memories Of Silver, three other millionaires and a small but select string plied their trades over the past 37 years. In an ever-changing game during a most unsettling time, Jimmy Toner missing Saratoga stings.
“It’s been hard all year. Usually we come back in April, this year, you look up and it’s June. I’m not as deep as I used to be anyway,” he said. “This year is a total write off as far as any kind of normalcy, try to get through it, that’s all we can do. Hopefully things turn around when this thing clears out. Whether we ever get back to normal I’m not sure, but maybe it’s not as precarious as it is now.”
A stack of wood chips never looked so precarious.
“I haven’t dwelled on it that much,” Toner said. “Now you’re going to make me think about it…”
You could hear the pain.