The last page, the last words of another season of the Saratoga Special. You’d think I’d have this one in the vault, canned months ago, it’s easy, say goodbye in 800 words, I do it every year. But, alas, it’s the last thing I write for the 12th consecutive year.
I have to taste blood.
It’s down to the three of us. Erin McNamee finishes designing the Forego and Woodward pages. Joe steers the ship, flipping photos, editing copy, still an hour away from writing his goodbye column. And I stare at a blank screen, the words hiding in the dark. I know I’m in trouble when I check the word count and I’m toiling in the 300s, the ditch is far from dug. After 12 years, I know they are there, somewhere, how long it takes to find them is the question.
It’s 11:37 p.m. Time ticks.
A cover band plays music that should never have been covered. Cops question another drunk. An Italian Ice van parks on the corner of Broadway and Caroline. A blue-haired hippie walks with his skateboard tucked under his arm. Another Saturday night, summer’s over.
Somewhere on the other side of Union Avenue, the providers rest. Today’s stars, Dominus, Emcee and To Honor And Serve chill from jobs well done. Tomorrow’s stars chill for jobs ahead. I’ll miss the horses. I always think of them, so oblivious to their enormity, when I think of the rapture of Saratoga.
Two more days of racing, then summer’s over.
As I was reminded by Betsy Kuhn’s column, “Bye Union Ave more than a name,” written in 2009 and given to me by one of our first readers, Jimmy Dintino and his wife on Friday at the races, when you get up to go, go.
Kuhn, put it more eloquently:
In the old days, when the meeting ended before Labor Day, I remember being at the track for the last weekend of racing. I could see signs of barns packing up, cases and trunks open and ready for the move. It was sad. It wasn’t just me leaving; it was everyone.
A fellow who used to work at Sperry’s once described the onset of fall in Saratoga; Labor Day arrives, he said, and boom: as if on cue, the days turn chilly and the leaves change color. Even in August you see the occasional tree along the Northway showing splotches of red. Red! In August!
There’s just no getting around it: summer has to end, the Saratoga race meeting has to come to a close, and we all have to simply move on with our lives. I have found the only way to leave Saratoga is to face forward, both physically and mentally, and keep driving. You can’t dwell on the fact that you’re leaving; you can’t allow yourself any wistfulness. You have to march on out of Paradise and trust that you’ll be back.
Then you can say, with gratitude, Hello Union Ave.
Leaving Saratoga, for me, adds another year to my life. Birthdays mean nothing to me. The end of Saratoga is how I mark time, how I keep score.
This year, My fingers hurt. My elbows have desk burn. I have caffeine stomach. I have holes in my soles. My nerves are shot. My patience gone.
For me, it’s time to hug the family, ride a horse, read the paper, pay bills, eat a home-cooked meal, do the dishes, hit the snooze button, mow the grass (who am I kidding?), go for a run, pick up the mail at the post office, read the Lorax to Miles, lie on the couch at least for an afternoon.
If you’re looking for me after Monday, you’ll have a better chance at hiring a plane and sky writing over the Blue Ridge Mountains than getting me on my cell phone. I’ll be in the yard, playing with Miles. Challenger Soccer, ages 3-6, starts Thursday.
I leave satisfied. Tired, but satisfied.
I think of what Bill Mott said after winning the Woodward with To Honor And Serve, after spending 22 minutes detailing his thought process, the nuances of turning a fourth in the Suburban to a win in the Woodward, the art of keeping a horse’s head straight by starting him off with the pony, the confidence to back off and walk a horse for a week while the pressure is building and your heart is telling you to kick on while your brain is telling you to back off.
“That’s what it’s all about, if you want the personal self satisfaction,” Mott said. “Even if you get beat, you know, ‘Well, I tried.’ “