Nearing the end of the Capital OTB show Wednesday morning, Seth Merrow offered a question and a statement all rolled together, letting it hang in the air.
"You write the Cup of Coffee, on or near the back page, every day...?"
"Every day," I said, knocking on wood, "I haven't missed one yet."
I just knocked on wood again, eight hours later, as the clock ticks and I sit behind an empty screen.
You'd think, after 15 years, I'd get better at knowing what I was going to write about each day. Retired Daily Racing Form editor-in-chief Rich Rosenbush, part editor, part psychologist who knew his writers like Jerkens knew his horses, once said to me, "You know, you'd be a lot better writer if you decided on what you were going to write about earlier, instead of on deadline."
He had a point.
I wander all morning on the backstretch, horses and horsemen coming and going, then spend part of the afternoon at the track and come back to the office without a subject...? I look back at the day and think about all the missed opportunities, all the chances to research and report, all the chances to create 800 words from scratch.
But, alas, I don't know I'm writing a column even though I know I'm writing a column. Rosenbush would shake his head at that one.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have taken notes as two women and a man dissected The Saratoga Special like they were pulling a tomato out of the center of a Dagwood, turning Tuesday night's work into Wednesday morning's seat saver. The green benches on the grandstand apron, still damp with dew, instantly had color, Curalina spread out across three green slats, Sallee's back cover wedged and folded, Tom's story on the Shine Again tucked at the corners like a made bed. I would have asked them if that really works, if their seats would be there in the afternoon, I would have jotted down their names and asked them if they had read the paper before they used it as a seat saver.
If I knew I was going to write a column, I would have gone to the sales ground to write a mood piece about the first stall plaque to be hung, the first horse to arrive.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have gotten the name of the bay horse I grabbed from the outrider when crisis hit on the Oklahoma late Wednesday morning. I would have taken better mental notes of his kind eye, the warmth of his neck on my hand, his stress dissipating as we turned and walked away. I would have asked about his story, every horse has a story, and wrote about why some get lucky and some don't.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have written down the names of the couple sitting in folding chairs under the awning between the clubhouse and the paddock. The ones who stopped me in my tracks when they yelled, "We love your paper. We love it. I mean, we love it. It's the best newspaper ever. Ever." I thanked them, but if I stopped and thought about a column, whew, 800 words would have come easy from two horse breeders, two fans, two readers.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have gone with Julien Leparoux when he said he was going to see Tepin Wednesday morning. Yeah, I just sat there and wondered what I should write about as the jockey went to visit the best horse in the country.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have stuck with Eddie Graham as he walked through the clubhouse after the first. I would have asked him what was the difference between winning the Arlington Million and winning a ratings handicap over jumps at Saratoga. Actually, I did ask him and all I got was a laugh. If I thought about this column, I would have asked him about his first trip here, the time he came with Grenade for Bruce Miller. Yeah, Grenade and Eddie Graham deserved half a page in the back of The Special.
If I knew I was going to write a column, I would have asked Willie McCarthy what it was like to go from falling in two rides at Suffolk a few weeks ago to winning the first Wednesday. Hell, that one even had a lede, when he said he picked up a good ride on Dr. Skip last week.
If I knew I was writing a column, I would have taken better notes when A.C. Avila took a long drag of his cigarette and explained his move from Brazil to America back in the early 90s. The night he went to bed with $200,000 in the bank and in the morning he had nothing. A loan, the government called it.
If I knew I was writing a column, I wouldn't be sitting here on deadline with Rosenbush's voice in my head, "You know, you'd be a lot better writer if..."