We'd sleep in the living room, at least, try to sleep. Somehow, we thought it was better to sleep downstairs, on couches and two chairs pushed together, better to slip out in the middle of the night. Pillows, blankets, duffel bags ready to go. Dad woke us up at midnight. He always shipped at night, better for the horses.
My brother Joey, my sister Sheila and I toppled in the Imperatore horse van, the six-horse. One kid in the front, two in the back, usually two horses in the front two stalls, webbings, brush box, buckets, tack in a back stall, a mattress on straw bales in the other. Dad slammed the door, the heavy metal latch sliding shut, like a cellblock. It was pitch black.
Salvo, Conserje, Odd Man, Hawaiki, Town And Country, Smokum Scout...I remember all of them. They'd stand, wide-legged for balance, facing us, somehow peaceful, hay nets creating a galaxy of hay, snot, dust for the six-hour journey to Saratoga. Windows wide open, better for the horses. We grabbed Baker blankets, nets, rub rags, anything we could find and curled into balls, like Huskies in the snow. We'd doze off for a few minutes, here and there, snatches, sleep was hard to come by, partially because of the constant rattling of chains, the pot holes, the drone of the highway and partially because of the anticipation. We were going to Saratoga.
No stops, better for the horses. We packed bags of food, gone before we hit the Delaware Memorial Bridge. We packed books, they were never opened. Before Walkmans, before cell phones, before video games, just horses, kids and dreams.
The highway rolled past, Dad steady at the wheel. The captain of the ship.
At the first break of dawn, we'd leap from the mattress and clutch the window bars, like refugees spotting land. Trees, ridgelines, Mac trucks ripping past, the toll on the Thruway always signaling that we were getting closer.
Then we made that left onto Union Avenue, coming up the rise and seeing the first green barn, where John Kimmel is now. Ah, Saratoga.
We pulled into the Annex, always the second gate, parking in the open, where Ken McPeek stables now. Dad threw open the doors, slamming them into the latches on the side of the van. He grabbed the chain of the ramp, gave it a mighty tug, pulling it out straight, like trying to get crumbs off a blanket, then dropping it onto the dirt, a cloud of dust billowing out. Nothing was said, we grabbed shanks, pulling the leather ends from the bars which we had rigged to stifle the noise. Over the nose first, through the two brass squares and clipping it on the bottom, then we unhooked the two chains. The horse closest to the ramp, always first.
The horses walked off, some leapt, and always stopped. Heads up, they'd stare, wide eyed, like they knew they were in Saratoga. As John Shirreffs said to me yesterday, "Horses don't think about tomorrow." These horses were only thinking about today.
Joey grabbed the straw bales and bedded down the stalls, turning screw eyes quicker than a pit crew turns lug nuts. Sheila and I walked the horses, if they were jumpers. If they were flat horses, Dad would try to find a different way, sometimes holding two.
Bedded down, the horses walked into the stalls and rolled. Always, rolled. Then Joey and I filled up buckets, Joey dipping the buckets into the red cans of scalding hot water and me topping them off with cold, splashing it into my sneakers. Baths, light breakfast, hay in the corner and in a net, the morning was done.
Off to Lassie's or the the Blue Spruce Motel, halfway to Schuylerville, dad always saving millionaires money in hotel bills. It was bleak, but it was a jaunt, a trip, an adventure. Settled in, we'd try the black and white TVs, hopeless. Too restless to nap, we threw rocks at telephone poles until it was time for afternoon feed. Dad fired up the van and we rumbled back to Saratoga, hanging off the stall screens tied to the doorframes.
Pick, graze, walk, feed, then to the quarter pole to watch the feature.
One trip, Dad told me about a horse named Forego. The track was sloppy. Big field.
"He'll come running, bud. He'll come running, bud."
Eighty cents on the dollar, he never came running. It was 1977, the big horse finished seventh in the Whitney. Nearly On Time won carrying 103 pounds. Forego carried 136.
There were many before him and many after, all creating the image of Saratoga that would wallpaper our lives.
We checked on the horses again, topped off their water, threw each another flake of hay. Then went back to the hotel, showered and went to dinner somewhere. DiRossi's was a favorite place in the early days. Spaghetti with meat sauce, eaten outside. The Pink Sheet came out at night, we hovered over the charts, deciphering, digesting what had happened today and dreaming of what would happen tomorrow.