“My late horseplaying friend, Bob Engelhardt, better known as the ‘Exacta Kid,’ always called the Travers a ‘Holy Race of Obligation’ and never missed a running. Vic Zast’s memories of the Midsummer Derby make a marvelous hymn book for both the faithful and the soon-to-be converted.”
— Bob Summers, The Buffalo News
(NORTH COUNTRY BOOKS, Utica, New York) Keeping a streak alive was never a thought to author Vic Zast and artist Greg Montgomery when each began to record memories and images of the Travers Stakes.
Zast, a Buffalo, N.Y. native, had spent at least a day at Saratoga Racecourse during the month of August for the last 45 years. Montgomery, who moved to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. from Washington, D.C. in 1980, created his first of 25 Travers posters in 1986.
Yet, neither man made anything of these coincidental skeins until the two came together a year ago to begin work on “The History and Art of 25 Travers.” Their collaboration has resulted in a magnificent 144-page, 9" x 12" book that will appeal to a large audience of horse racing fans and art aficionados. Because the Travers Stakes is the oldest thoroughbred horse race in the United States, “the Midsummer Derby,” as it has come to be called, is teeming with imagery and lore, and that’s what this book is all about.
The avid horse racing fan will delve into Zast’s retrospectives of the Travers Stakes from 1986 to 2008 as well as his nostalgic accounts of three other Travers that stand out from among the race’s 137 editions. The author is adept at giving his readers more than the meat on the bones. He dresses each serving with gravy.
For example, Zast equates the uncertainty of superiority among the top three finishers in the 1988 Travers with the closing of the Spuyten Duyvil restaurant one summer earlier. “The venerable establishment — open only during racing season — would have been just the right spot for owners of the first-, second- and third-place finishers to have gone to continue their argument about which horse was the best three-year-old,” he writes, making light of the Spuyten Duyvil’s demise in the process of describing a photo finish.
On the other hand, what Zast doesn’t cover in his colorful narrative, he gets around to differently. “The History and Art of 25 Travers” contains sidebars aplenty, plus a full set of official Daily Racing Form charts in the back of the book. Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, last year’s Travers winner, lets his feelings be known with the innocence of homespun. Moreover, Skip Dickstein’s photographs — over 100 color images — are scattered about. Nevertheless, as vivid as they are, they pale in comparison to Montgomery’s art.
Montgomery’s poster series — the longest continuing series of sporting art in the world — begins on page 30 and lights up the next 130 pages like a toteboard flashing mutuels. The artist’s modern colors, cleverly connected by white space, are jigsaw-puzzled into shapes that create scenes. His technique causes an effect of new-age impressionism, although purists might deduce that his style may be a contemporary form of British Railway art, and they most likely would be right.
The woman depicted in the 1990 poster entitled “Lady in Red” would be equally intriguing in the observation car of the Orient Express instead of the racetrack’s Terrace Restaurant. If the jockey were headless in the 2005 poster called “Storm Bird,” Montgomery’s poster would seem like the cover to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” As a matter of fact, 15 of the posters have been transformed into covers for mystery writer Dick Francis’ paperbacks, so Montgomery is no stranger to intrigue. The appendix pays homage to this effort.
Precious to “The History and Art of 25 Travers” are the last few chapters. Here in the waning text, Zast recounts what racing was like in Saratoga in 1930, 1962 and 1978 and Montgomery unveils three Travers of bygone times with a triptych. Utilizing a sweep of the peak-roofed Saratoga Racecourse grandstand as a backdrop, the artist manages to capture the exploits of Jim Dandy over Gallant Fox and Whichone, Jaipur and Ridan, and arch-rivals Alydar and Affirmed, even though their appearance on the track spanned a period of nearly 50 years.
One can only wish that there will be more of the history, the posters, the charts and the photos of the Travers to enjoy in the future. But given the record of Zast and Montgomery for being diligent, and the practice of horse people to gather in the old Victorian city with the beautiful racecourse, an updated version of this book, unlike many a fast horse, seems a sure thing.