There's no greater stage for the storied and illustrious champions of Thoroughbred racing than the famed Saratoga Race Course.
It is a beloved oasis where the sport's elite have competed since the long ago days of the Civil War, and its rafters have rocked and swayed from the enthusiastic salutes for its greatest heroes.
In Saratoga's 146th season, there could very well be a moment deserving of the emotional response and celebration reserved for a once-in-a-lifetime event like a dead-heat in the Travers. Yet will not happen in one of the track's illustrious Grade 1 stakes. Most likely, it would be in a routine claimer, or an allowance race. It figures to be a race that in the grand scheme of the track's history might be very easily forgotten in terms of its purse or stature, except for the woman at the heart of it. Over the course of the 20 or so racing days left in the current 40-day meet, few victories promise to be as uplifting and capable of generating as many as smiles as one that would bring trainer Abigail Adsit to the winner's circle.
This game has the lows of lows and highs and highs. I have to be a fighter every day I come here. You need strong perseverance in this game ..." -- Abigail Adsit, trainer
None, too, would be as deserving as the one fate may one day have in store for her, her family, her staff and owners.
At the vibrant age of 27, Adsit is one of a number of young trainers trying to make a name for themselves at Saratoga while competing against some of the best horsemen, deepest-pocketed owners and regally bred horses the sport has to offer. It's an imposing challenge for a young woman who was born in Saratoga and grew up in a racing family. Her father, Eric, has been a standard bred trainer and owner since 1975, and Abigail and her mother, Jean, spent many a day traveling across the East and Canada with him to various racing circuits.
Though she graduated from Saratoga High School nine years ago, it was just one of nine different schools she attended during her elementary and secondary education. "Some kids are army brats. I was a horse brat," Abigail said.
From the age of three, she spoke about becoming not a jockey, but a trainer.
"When she was little, girls her age wanted to play with dolls," her father said. "But she wanted to go to the barn with me. It was her dream to be a trainer." She's now living that dream at the Spa.
"It would be the thrill of a lifetime to win at Saratoga," she said. "I'm a hometown girl and there would be nothing better than to win at Saratoga. It would be a great accomplishment for me. Winning here would take the cake."
Yet the place with such a special meaning for her has also tragically involved her in a recent ordeal as difficult and heart-breaking as any other in the track's 146-year history. Of the 10 horses Adsit brought to Saratoga this year, one was Lavender Road, a 4-year-old filly owned by Kallenberg Farm. On the heels of a maiden win at Belmont Park on June 26, Lavender Road was scheduled to run in the seventh race at Saratoga on July 30. But minutes before the daughter of First Defence was to be loaded in the starting gate, jockey Junior Alvarado felt something was amiss. Lavender Road was tying up, or cramping.
She was scratched and unsaddled, and after the race she was being led off the track when stress and the humidity of the day overwhelmed her.
In front of the walking path horses use to step onto the track, the filly collapsed. Adsit and the track's veterinary staff immediately rushed in to tend to Lavender Road, who was diagnosed with heat exhaustion, a frightening but usually quickly remedied ailment. In full view of the patrons in the grandstand and clubhouse, Lavender Road was treated with water and ice to bring down her temperature and after a few minutes, she rose. But Lavender's Road's legs immediately grew wobbly and she collapsed to the ground once again.
Over the course of the next 45 minutes - as the day's racing card was put on hold - Lavender Road rose approximately 10 more times, only to keep grotesquely falling in a disturbing sequence of events.
Finally, when it became clear that Lavender Road could not leave the track, she was sedated and vanned to the nearby Rood & Riddle clinic for treatment. After an uneasy night, the next morning Adsit received the call that anyone associated with horses dreads most. At some point in the ordeal, Lavender Road had fractured her neck and had to be humanely destroyed.
"That was an absolutely horrific course of events that occurred," Abigail said. "It was a freak accident and these horses are my children. It was so painful to watch and go through. I always take the best of care of my horses and want the best for my horses, so to have to go through that was really, really, I don't know, devastating. You start with that word and go from there."
"It's like having one of your kids die. You can never get used to it. I'll live with this the rest of my life."
Those who know Adsit best, understand they are not hollow words. Her young life has centered on racing. She rode jumpers and hunters as a youth and played polo. At the age of eight she was the youngest licensed groom in the State of New York, caring for polo horses.
As a young teen she would help her father prepare horses for their races at place like the Saratoga Harness Track and Woodbine. Later she galloped Thoroughbreds for trainers like Rick Violette, Todd Pletcher and Wesley Ward.
Some two days after graduating from Union College with a B.A. in English, she went to work for Linda Rice, the New York circuit's top female trainer, and became an assistant trainer.
"Working for Linda was my graduate school. I learned a great deal from her," Adsit said. After 3 ½ years of caring for the 90 horses in Rice's stable, Adsit took the proverbial big jump and decided to go out on her own. When Adsit left, Rice was confident her protégé would be successful.
"She has a strong background in horses and is a bright individual," Rice said. "She did a lot of riding and her ability to understand what's going on with a horse is her best asset." In Jan. 2013, she took out her trainer's license and to date she has 12 career victories - seven this year - with wins at Belmont, Aqueduct, Parx and Finger Lakes.
She had high hopes of adding Saratoga to that list. Though her stable increased marginally from just eight horses in 2013 to 10 this year, she had managed to improve the class and caliber of those horses, making them more competitive on a demanding circuit like New York.
Most of all, she was inspired by having her dad alongside to help her. In mid-July Eric decided to his give up his own stable and join his daughter's organization as an assistant. He and Jean made plans to sell their Saratoga home and buy one in Long Island, near Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
"Now it's her turn to have the family business and I'm going to help her," Eric said. "We're a close-knit family that always wants to be together and we've always talked about working together. I've had my thrills and success and now it's time for me to make the ball roll for her."
Considering those strong family ties, it was no surprise that both mother and father were alongside their daughter as she endured her most difficult day in racing and provided the emotional support she needed to weather it.
When Eric heard that Lavender Road had been scratched from the fateful July 30 race, he headed back to Abigail's barn along with the filly's groom. When they arrived, they learned of what had happened to their horse.
Eric commandeered a backstretch golf chart and drove back to the track, then climbed a fence and ran onto the track to join his daughter and wife.
"It was killing me, I kept saying, "Wake up, Eric, wake up. This is a bad dream. But it wouldn't go away," he said. "It was gut-wrenching. I felt so bad for the horse and then I could see what it was doing to my daughter with 15,000 to 20,000 people watching it as this was happening to her favorite horse. She loved that horse. I knew it was killing her. It was so hard to be out there and watch all of that."
Following a sleepless night for the family, the next morning, Abigail was aboard another of her horses, with her father leading them out to the track, when she received the crushing news.
Though x-rays on the filly's legs were negative, they also showed that at some point she had suffered a fracture of the seventh cervical vertebrae in her neck. With no way to treat her for such a serious injury, Lavender Road had to be put down.
"As soon as she heard that, the tears let loose," Eric said. "It was such a horrible feeling. People don't understand how people at the racetrack put their life into this sport and their horses. Something like that rips you up."
While driving over to the clinic, Abigail did her best to maintain her composure. "She told me, 'Dad, we've got to get strong. We'll take care of this in proper fashion. Well get through it,'" Eric said.
After speaking with the vets, Abigail then made arrangements for Lavender Road to be cremated, paying for it herself.
"She said, 'My horses aren't going on a pile. We're going to do this properly,'" Eric related. "That's the kind of kid she is."
Abigail now has Lavender Road's ashes and four horseshoes as the final vestiges of the tragic July afternoon that will never leave her. At some point, she and the filly's owners will decide on a proper place to spread the ashes, but for now she knows the only option for her is to move forward.
"This game has the lows of lows and highs and highs," she said. "I have to be a fighter every day I come here. You need strong perseverance in this game because there's so much heart-break. We put so much of our hearts and souls into it."
As they accepted a wealth of condolences from the racing community over the course of the next few days, the Adsits leaned heavily on each other. Eric, in his heart, believed that after enduring so much grief and misery, fate would help with the healing process. "You're going to be destined for something great," Eric told his daughter a few days later. "The Good Lord rewards for suffering."
That shift of emotions came a week later, when Abigail entered Flamingo Lane in Saratoga's seventh race on Aug. 6.
A 4-year-old filly, Flamingo Lane represents Adsit's best work. She started training her last year, when she was running in $16,000 maiden claimers. This spring, though, the daughter of Consolidator blossomed and reeled off three straight wins against increasingly better competition.
At Saratoga, Adsit presented Flamingo Lane with her biggest challenge: an $85,000 allowance race. The field included horses trained by renowned horsemen such as Todd Pletcher, Shug McGaughey and Steve Asmussen and owned by outfits like the Phipps Stable, Ken and Sarah Ramsey and Stonestreet Stable.
Matched against all of that high-priced talent, it was Adsit's claimer who rushed out to grab the early lead in the mile and an eighth turf race. As the field turned into stretch, she remained there.
Though collared by the Ramsey's 9-5 favorite Kitten Queen at the eighth pole, Flamingo Lane never wilted. She continued to battle every step of the way, almost as if she was receiving inspiration from above. But then, in the final strides, Kitten Queen surged to a slim lead and won by a neck.
It was a difficult race to lose, but this time there was no anguish for the Adsits. Just pride. "Abigail was so pumped up after that race," Eric said. "It was the first time she smiled since she lost Lavender Road.
"There was a feeling that we'll get rolling. We'll be respectful to the filly that passed on and will always have a soft and sad spot in her heart for her. But we know we're going to move on. That race was a good start and I truly believe her luck is ready to turn the corner."
If it does and fate responds with that much-coveted victory at the famous racetrack in her hometown, there will no doubt be tears once again in Abigail Adsit's eyes. Only this time, they will stem from joy, and for that there will be a new and utterly uplifting reason to profusely cheer at Saratoga.