When I was a kid, I grew up near Saratoga Springs, New York. Although I lived about 15 minutes from Saratoga Race Course, it would be years until I made my first visit. Much closer to our house, just a minute down the road, was the Saratoga County Airport.
The field consisted of two crisscross runways, both too short to accommodate even the smallest commercial aircraft, a couple of aprons for planes to park, and a small, run down FBO. Make a visit anytime from September to June and you'll find a handful of single-prop aircraft and gliders jutting out from the brown, unkempt grass. But drop by in July and August, and the field transforms into a gateway for the rich (and sometimes, the famous). Dozens of private jets fly in each morning, bringing wealthy racehorse owners or celebrities to town for the afternoon.
This is where I spent my summers as a child. My mom took me almost daily to watch the planes come in. We sat in the parking lot, surrounded by white limos and black SUVs. Every so often, one of the vehicles would start up and drive behind the airport gates onto the apron (what security?). A few minutes later, a plane would arrive, the car would pull up to its stairs, and the passengers would be whisked away to the races.
What a life. As a kid, I was sure that would be me one day.
Most of the planes were white. Many had pinstripes or a company logo. They all blended together after a while. One of these jets, a frequent visitor, always stood out from the first day I saw it. It was much bigger than most of the planes. The bottom half of the fuselage was a creamy white; the top half, bright, bold turquoise blue. A few rows of mahogany pinstripes went from nose to tail where the colors met. Its tail number, in the same mahogany tone, "N832SC." This plane was the reason I kept going to the airport every summer well into my elementary and middle school years. Eventually, we learned that this plane was owned by William T. Young of Overbrook Farm.
On a hot and humid August evening in 2005, we were there, waiting for this plane to depart. Close by, a man in a black suit sat on a splintery, old wooden bench outside the FBO and talked frantically into a cell phone. Soon, he hung up looking frustrated and started pacing around. He had an official-looking ID badge clipped to his shirt.
"Are you a pilot," we asked.
"Why yes, I am. I fly that big blue/green one out there," he said in a kind voice as he pointed to the plane. We learned his name was Dennis, and after telling him that we've been watching that plane for years, he offered to give us a tour.
I've never again been so nervous as I was when Dennis led my mom and me across the tarmac up to the plane.
"See that, N832SC" he said. "That stands for Storm Cat, their Derby winner." He was half right. I later learned that 8-3-2 stood for the horse's birthday, February 1983."
By then, Mr. Young had already passed away, but at that point, his son Bill Young Jr. was running Overbrook Farm. Eventually, I sent him a letter letting him know how generous his pilot was and that I had started following his racehorses. I didn't expect to get anything back.
A short time later, I came home from school to find a big cardboard box sitting in the family room. It was from Lexington, Kentucky. I opened it and found a letter from Mr. Young printed on Overbrook Farm stationery resting on top of a mountain of packing peanuts.
"The choice of the plane color was the subject of much discussion," part of the letter read. "My father was the greatest proponent, pointing out that the color gave the plane a special identity and distinction among all of the white and silver corporate aircraft. Your letter is proof that he was right."
Having absolutely no idea what he might have sent along with this letter, I dug into the packing peanuts. I couldn't believe what I pulled out. Brown straps of leather held together by brass rings and buckles. The whole thing was scratched and tarnished with dirt, including the nameplate that read, "STORM CAT." A tag on one of the buckles read, "2/25 to 3/3/06."
"I am sending a Storm Cat halter and my thanks for your support," he wrote.
Game over. I was hooked.
It would still be a few years before I went to the track for the first time, but I already knew that I wanted to be a part of this game. The dream of owning racehorses was already firmly rooted in my imagination.
Since then, I've traded the airport for the racetrack, Overbrook Farm dispersed its stock, Storm Cat passed away, and the plane has a new livery (sporting the white, blue, and green of the Overbrook Farm silks), but I have more Storm Cat memorabilia than I care to admit and I'm still hooked on the idea of owning a racing stable and a breed-to-race farm one day. I've taken a few small steps in that direction.
William T. Young practically framed my entire childhood without even knowing it. There was one horse that was solely responsible for igniting my interest in racing, yet I never saw him race or even saw him in person. It goes to show how powerful racing's message and allure can be and how horses can be much more than just horses to us.
Brandon Valvo, a senior at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., spent last summer as an intern with The Saratoga Special.