My friend Richard Valentine asked the question, innocuously, innocently, matter-of-factly, “Do you still get that same feeling when you drive into Saratoga?”
He had just left Saratoga, headed back to Virginia, a long road ahead and a long road back. His question was loaded, I didn’t dare ask if he meant he didn’t or he did. I didn’t want to know. I hesitated, stammered, uttered a few inaudible words and have been thinking about it ever since. I still had a day or two before heading north, making that left off the Northway, the right on Union Avenue and having that question answered for myself, yet again, for the 24th consecutive summer at the Spa.
I’ll answer in questions. Just questions.
That feeling? That electric, sky’s-the-limit, when-all-the-world-is-young feeling? That feeling of purity in the marrow of your bones? That strange feeling of pressure and freedom? That feeling of crossing the divide when you see the Thaddeus Kosiuszko Bridge on the Northway? That feeling of crispness when you open a window in a third-floor office over Broadway?
That feeling of wind in your hair, leaning over the stall screen wired to the van door, as Dad turned up Union Avenue in the six-horse Imperatore? That feeling of walking onto the turf course, after losing five pounds in the hot box, knowing you’re about to go faster than you’ve ever gone? That feeling of an 18-year-old kid walking down the long shedrow of the Annex, looking for Janet Elliot to ask if you can ride Bureau Chief, a horse who means nothing to most, everything to you.
That feeling when asking for a 21-year-old girl’s phone number in the boxseats and thinking maybe I’ll marry this girl one day (I did). That feeling of looking for the Travers Canoe in the dark? That feeling of 35 issues of The Saratoga Special on your plate? That feeling of purity? That feeling Thoroughbred racing is alive and well? That sweet feeling of a cold drink on a Sunday night? That feeling of vitality when you see a Saratoga rookie walk onto the backstretch and stop in awe?
That feeling of winning your first race, six years after riding your first race, at Saratoga? That feeling of saying goodbye to a young flame-out phenom who was gone before he knew who he was? That feeling of spiral fracturing your ankle after the last fence, knowing your last ride at Saratoga will end, broken in the dirt?
That feeling of looking for the next Silver Max, Drosselmeyer, Dullahan on the Oklahoma turf? That feeling of standing in the IRS line, thinking you’re smarter than everybody else? That feeling of seeing your silks on your horse in the paddock at Saratoga? That feeling of potential? That feeling of history? That feeling of unquenchable thirst to make something of the short time you’re here?
That feeling when you see a horse try so hard that he can’t find his bearings? That feeling of chiseled bronze under your fingers on the plaques of Kelso, Frankel and Whiteley in the Hall of Fame. That feeling of jolt when your dive breaks the surface of Saratoga Lake? That feeling of utter disbelief when a horse you loved gets beat? That feeling of disdain when you see a young man disrespect it? That feeling of pain when you see an old man lose it? That great, unanswerable feeling of the passage of time?
That feeling of seeing Frank and Jason at the bar of the Parting Glass? That feeling when you see the Chief, riding/driving the beat? That feeling when Tom Durkin says, ‘They’re off at Saratoga’ for the first time? That feeling of dread when opening up the Special first thing in the morning and wondering how many mistakes you made the night before? That feeling of energy when the lights go down at the Fasig-Tipton Salesgrounds? That feeling when you hear the sound of hoofbeats, growing louder over a freshly harrowed Oklahoma track?
That feeling of first light, over the trees, sun coming through? That feeling of dread when a deadline slips past? That feeling of wonderment as Saratoga lives outside your window of entrapment? That feeling of pain when you hear your son’s voice on the phone and he asks where you are and when you’re coming home? That feeling of a hard day’s work, complete?
Yeah, I still get that feeling.