The Inside Rail

You’d think this would be the easy one. I’ve written this one every year since 2001, the final blank page, the final goodbye. The old feel-good, get-out-of-town farewell, the last swipe across the canvas, push back the chair, marvel for a moment and turn off the lights. As my Uncle Lew always said, “When you get up to go. Go.”

I’m going.

At The Special, 28 editions are in the books, strewn together with all the effort, creativity and pizzazz we could muster. The 29th is on the ledge, just another 700 more words and the curtain will come down.

None of the issues are as good as we would have liked, but they are as good as we could do. There’s a difference.

When I was a kid at Saratoga, I thought galloping six horses a day for the likes of Mike Hushion, Leo O’Brien, P.G. Johnson, John Hertler, Vinnie Blengs, Robbie Laurin and Leroy Jolley and riding two jump races a week was the best I could do. While here, I felt like I worked hard, played hard, gave it my all. Then I would get in my car at the end of the meet and face the dread of underachievement, wasted opportunity, squandered moments. Coming home to an empty room didn’t help (now Annie and Miles wait for me, what a difference that makes) but it was always a long drive home. Broke and busted and hours of thinking, whew, I never felt lower. It was strange, I loved my summers here and hated what they did to me or, more like, what I did to them.  

When I retired from riding races in 2000, I was faced with a blank slate.

At 30, blank slates aren’t nearly as captivating as when you’re 20. When you’re starting over at 30, you can’t afford to get it wrong. Saratoga held a funny spot, it made sense when I was galloping horses and riding races, when I was young and free, that’s where I belonged, but once that was over, I didn’t feel like I had a reason to be here. I’m not a great tourist. I couldn’t come here on vacation, I’m not a handicapper, I didn’t work the sales and I knew I didn’t want to be a horse trainer. I knew I needed a role or a project if I was coming back to Saratoga the following summer.

Joe and I kicked around ideas. After eight years of the niche of all niche publications, Steeplechase Times, it was time to punt or plan. We huddled and came up with The Saratoga Special. Since that first summer in 2001, I’ve never left Saratoga with a feeling of underachievement.

This year, sure, I would have liked to have gone to dinner with Phil Serpe and Jimmy Jerkens and breakfast with Mike Hushion. Of course, a round of golf and a ride around the stable area on Wabbajack would have been fun. And, no that life-changing Pick 6 didn’t come to fruition, but I’ll be OK leaving. Bittersweet, of course. Melancholic, no doubt. But, squandered opportunity, a mad-at-myself shroud, nah.

Now, the drive comes easy. Yes, exhausted and spent but there is no dread or malaise. We are proud of what we accomplished. Yes, we could have done it better and yes there are things we missed and things we fumbled, but we did it. Whether you’re training horses, riding horses, betting horses, writing newspapers, flipping burgers, directing traffic, selling tip sheets or shining shoes, I hope you feel the same way when you leave this magical place.

At the end of the meet, when there is just one issue still to go, the little moments seem to linger longer, seem to register deeper.

Earlier in the day, a man grabbed The Special out of our paper box on East Avenue, held it in the air and smelled it, sucking in the essence of the printed newspaper, the essence of Saratoga, the essence of another summer coming to a close.

Hours later, Gun Runner earned his way to his second consecutive cover, dominating the Woodward for his third consecutive Grade 1 stakes score. Steve Asmussen walked out, took a selfie with a New England Patriots’ fan, met up with jockey Florent Geroux who was heading back to the barn to greet the 4-year-old colt who made an indelible mark on Saratoga this summer. Fans funneled out in the dark, applauded Asmussen and Geroux, wishing them luck in the Breeders’ Cup and headed for their cars. That’s Saratoga, where you don’t feel crazy for being a racing fan.

Longtime Special photographer and friend, Dave Harmon, dropping off his final batch of photos, thanked us for another season. I looked up from 843 words into the Woodward recap and thanked him for 17 years of belief. “Has it been that long?” Dave asked. “Somebody asked me today, I knew it had been awhile. Hey, I love it.”

Adam Newman, an owner and a longtime reader, running partner and fan of The Special, walked in with a bottle of champagne. Told us to have a toast later. We’ll see how we feel.

Ray Swift, a longtime reader of The Special walked in the door as Tom, Tiller, Valvo, Joe and I hammered tired fingers on tired keys on tired computers. Swift brought Augie’s To Go, another morsel of Saratoga goodwill to keep us going late into the night. Swift knew not to stay long, waving, “Keep doing what you’re doing, we love you.”

We’ll try. In a day or two, I’ll hit the Northway, another year older, another Saratoga richer.