Opinions

Periodic columns from our staff and the occasional guest.

Paddy Neilson

I would not have become a jockey without Paddy Neilson. 

Before school, my last two years of Unionville High School. Monday to Friday, one set. Eight dollars a horse, plus breakfast. Neilson’s wife, Toinette, toasted cinnamon rolls, I’d run up the steps, take a quick shower, pull on a slightly cleaner set of clothes, eat breakfast and listen to lectures and lessons from my mentors. Toinette, I had known her since she galloped and rode races for my father starting at Delaware Park in the 1970s, a great rider, a great cook, a great friend. She offered subtle points. 

Paddy Neilson

I would not have become a jockey without Paddy Neilson. 

Before school, my last two years of Unionville High School. Monday to Friday, one set. Eight dollars a horse, plus breakfast. Neilson’s wife, Toinette, toasted cinnamon rolls, I’d run up the steps, take a quick shower, pull on a slightly cleaner set of clothes, eat breakfast and listen to lectures and lessons from my mentors. Toinette, I had known her since she galloped and rode races for my father starting at Delaware Park in the 1970s, a great rider, a great cook, a great friend. She offered subtle points. 

One to Go

It’s 8:32 Friday night. Issue 33. Column 33.

I just drank a double espresso cold brew from High Brew Coffee. Fifty calories. 130-150 mg of caffeine.

A Runner

“She was a runner.” 

That’s how Randy Romero signed a photo of Personal Ensign winning the 1988 Whitney. That was it, simple and oh so sweet. Just like the man. 

Digital

John Wayne Eastwood opened the office door and began to rant.

“Hey, I can’t find the paper anywhere this morning.”

Tom Law, ever the traffic cop, tempered the situation from the first chair in the office, strategically placed for situations like this (I hid in the back office).

“We don’t do Wednesdays,” Law said to one of our most loyal readers.

“Oh, man . . .” Eastwood said. “You don’t do Wednesdays, come on . . .”

“And the rest of this week is digital only,” Law said.

Like a barking dog told to stay on the chain for another hour, Eastwood was not impressed. Holding the office door with disdain, the hotwalker/handicapper offered his opinion on that decision.

“Don’t fall into the trap…Don’t fall into the trap…”

Eastwood, we’ve been in the trap since 2001 and we’re trying to climb out of the trap.

In 2001, we launched The Special as a daily newspaper, publishing every racing day, including Mondays. The only place you could read The Special was in Saratoga. Joe was designing every page and I was writing every page. Tom was happily employed at Thoroughbred Times or The Pink Sheet, somewhere.

We had Skidmore students helping, let’s say they offered more creative writing than journalistic writing. Trainer Frank Alexander told us The Special wasn’t a newspaper, it was a pamphlet. We were driving the paper to the printer, an early-afternoon run and a late-night run. Every night, I wrote a recap and a column unsure that I could do either, the words dripped, rarely flowed. We were trying to charge a dollar, blood met stone.

About halfway through the meet, while losing money with every printed paper and facing another Sunday night deadline, Joe and I held a board meeting.

It went like this.

“What do you think about skipping Monday?” Joe said from his folding table in a converted yoga studio.

“That’s cool,” I said.

We slammed our laptops shut (actually, we might not have even had laptops then), called off the printer and walked down Broadway for a burger and a beer.

It was the first good business decision we had made all meet.

Monday morning, our readers barely noticed, advertisers (the few we had) rolled with the move, Wednesday’s paper improved, we saved a little money and got a little extra sleep.

In 2017, we changed our schedule again and stopped publishing Wednesday papers. This decision wasn’t nearly as easy as canceling Monday papers the first year but it was a move we made to reflect the change in the stakes schedule and racing product. The Monday and Wednesday cards had slipped and the Saturday cards had strengthened, we found ourselves writing dull papers early in the week and packed papers on weekends. We bolstered our online presence, saved some money and moved forward. It wasn’t ideal, but it was necessary.

We still see readers looking for The Special Wednesday morning (sorry, Eastwood) and some Sunday and Wednesday winners receive short shrift. Ultimately, the move was made because of the stacked Saturday cards. We walked out of the office at 3 Saturday morning and 3:30 Sunday morning, after somehow shoehorning seven stakes that were all cover-worthy into the crammed inside pages. It felt like we scaled two mountains, the office as close to an old-school newspaper room as it had been all summer, keys clacking, coffee chugging. Seventy-two pages Saturday, 44 pages Sunday. Hey, Frank, here’s your pamphlet.

And now for our latest business decision. This week, we will publish in digital form only. We’ve printed 30 issues already this year, that’s one more than last year and we’ll produce another four this week for a total of 34, the most we’ve done since 2015 and one less than we did in 2014.

It’s simply a business decision, saving four print bills this week.

As this meet lengthens, we’ll adjust. This is our third adjustment over 19 years. We’re a little like a trainer who comes to Saratoga for the season, he doesn’t come with more horses because there are more racing days, he comes with the same amount and somehow tries to make the balance sheet balance.

We’re purists, we love the feel of the newspaper in our hands, love seeing readers pick up the paper from the racks around the track and around town and as long as there are printers to print, we’ll print a newspaper. Just not quite as often, perhaps.

It won’t be the same going out to the track without bundles of The Special. I’m dreading it, actually. As Special Reader’s Club member Beth Blair said, we’re tactile, too.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the move that we made.

When you start a newspaper about horse racing, you’re not exactly following market trends or chasing the next big thing. But, we did it anyway.

Occasionally, we make business decisions. Eastwood and all the rest of our loyal, cherished readers, enjoy the last week of the Spa, enjoy The Special – no matter how you read it – and stay out of the trap.

Missing It

It’s that time of year. The Travers has come and gone, the downward slide has begun. To celebrate our final print edition (the final four Specials will be digital only), I bring you the annual “I’ll miss. I won’t miss” column.

Replays

The first one I remember watching, really watching, was 1982. Joey and I finished watering off at the barn and drove the farm truck to the racing office at Delaware Park. There, we watched the Travers. It was the first time we had watched a race from another track at a track. We walked past shiny white trailers in the parking lot. Somebody said something about simulcast trucks, whatever that meant.

Paddock Rain

Bill Mott stood in the road outside his barn on the Oklahoma bend Wednesday morning and directed traffic. Making sure there were no cars, golf carts or horses, Mott asked for his paddock schoolers to make the walk, hoping to slip through a break in a relentless rain.

In Honor

The tack trunk sits in the corner, next to a Saratoga 2-year-old winner, under the overhang of the T-shaped barn inside Clare Court. A bag of timothy hay cubes folds and falls. Ankle paint, a soft-bristled, long-stemmed brush dropped in the plastic holder taped around the jar, you know, the quintessential groom-rigged method of efficiency. A stiff bristle brush, it looks like it was thrown from a passing car. Green gel, Epsom salt, a feed tub and a bag of laundry.