The Inside Rail

Chip Miller hopped off his 3-speed Red Hot bicycle at the East Avenue Café, swinging his right leg back and across like he had done three thousand times before, snapping the white pole in half, like a chopstick, the bottom part wangling back and forth behind the back tire, the other half, the one with the florescent orange flag flew halfway across Lake Avenue and laid in the street like a dead bird. I laughed, pointing at the flag. Chip walked over to my bike, a girl’s Schwinn borrowed from a garage, and snapped my flag in half, throwing the top half like a Frisbee.

Then we really laughed, guffawed, as we hopped up the steps for another pancake and milk shake breakfast.

Nina Strawbridge had bought the flags for all the kid’s bikes, so drivers could see us (nobody thought about buying us helmets) as we bombed from the Annex to the Hall of Fame to the Eastside Café to the park to the pool to the backside to the frontside to Broadway to Five Points to everywhere.

Bikes provided freedom, Saratoga was freedom.

Except for those damn flags. They were embarrassing, like wearing wide-whale corduroys to church or getting another bowl cut at Burton’s Barbershop. No other kids had flags on their bikes, except for the Millers, Clancys, Strawbridges, Fenwicks and Neilsons, the Saratoga Cutters.

We were mortified by the flags, but compliant, as my father trained for Nina and George Strawbridge Jr., they handed you a flag, you raised it. At least until Chip broke his in half and then decided to break mine in half. Nina asked where the flags were the next morning, we said on Lake Avenue. She didn’t buy any more and we kept riding our bikes, wearing goggles begged from the greats – MacBeth, Asmussen and Cauthen, waving whips borrowed from the tack rooms of the greats – Walsh, Cocks and Smithwick. 

As a kid, Saratoga offered a playground, a release of summer bliss with your friends from around the country. We didn’t have a worry in the world (except for those damn flags) as our summer vacation played out long and languid.

We woke up early and hotwalked horses for our parents, taking orders from the likes of Bubba and Speedy. We rolled bandages, held horses in ice, scrubbed feed tubs and water buckets. We set up a coffee stand inside the Annex to compete with Scotty, the young entrepreneur of the year who sold over-priced coffee cakes and weak coffee on the corner of Fifth and Shug. We competed, actually won some market share, but blew all the profits at the races, our stand didn’t last long.

We skinned our knees and elbows on the alpine slide in Vermont on the off days. We  jumped off rock ledges at the quarry. We watched the demolition derby at the Schuylerville Fair. We ate corn boiled in the red metal trash cans in between every barn. We went racing every afternoon, either on the frontside, in hand-me-down Searsucker sport coats and Lilly Pulitzer dresses, watching the races from the fire escape on the far end of the clubhouse or on backside in cut off jeans, Keds and Converse All Stars, sitting under the trees, just the faint sound of Marshall Cassidy – “Luck EeeLuck EeeLuck Eee…,” no betting windows, trying to gauge who won by how they looked as they disappeared behind the toteboard and how they looked when they reappeared. We made friendships that have lasted lifetimes, the racing game – Saratoga – planted deep in our marrow.

Saratoga is about the kids.

When The Special ran into a snafu here a few years ago, one of our allies said, You know why I stood up for you? Yeah, you got a hell of a paper, you do a good job, it’s fun to read, but I did it because of the kids. I’ve watched your kids grow up, from when they handed the paper to us in the boxes, dressed up, so polite, to now, going to college, graduating college, going about their lives. Yeah, that’s why I did it.”

Joe’s kids – Ryan, Jack and Nolan – and their respective cohorts and colleagues have represented the Special since 2001, going from little kids who would sometimes skip brushing their teeth – “Uncle Sean, I was in too big a hurry this morning,” to young adults who come to Saratoga on weekends now. Ryan, an engineer in Baltimore, brought his girlfriend to Saratoga this summer. Jack, a political intern in DC, worked as an usher for Fasig-Tipton. Nolan will be here this week. They have learned life lessons, they have reveled in the magic of Saratoga.

This weekend, my son, Miles, 8, and my wife, Annie, came to Saratoga. We had lunch with Price and Beth Bell’s family, George, 2, and Caroline, weeks. George and Miles talked dinosaurs, Caroline slept. Beyond those three, kids are everywhere in Saratoga, the next generation, the seeds planted, the flags waving. 

• Click here to read the entire Saratoga Special.