The Salvation Army rings its bell. A woman in a slinky black dress and six-inch heals unfolds a baby carriage, while holding an infant, bumps her arm and shows it to her man, he kisses it gently, they walk into the races.
A security guard waits in the shade. Louie, who played catcher on the last softball team I played on, tells me about a photo he took of a bathing cat. Chad Brown wins another race. A grandmother takes a photo of granddaughter and grandfather, the grandfather takes a photo of granddaughter and grandmother, then an EMT steps in and takes a photo of all three together, they smile and thank him.
A young couple walks in, hand-in-hand, the sky's the limit for the day, for their lives. Jimmy Dintino walks in and Bill Higgins walks out. Loretta Lusteg limps to her car. A trash cart, needing grease on its wheels, teeters past. Three boys and my college roommate walk out of the far gate near the paddock chute and flag me down.
Paul Wasserman had the summer off back in 2001, he came to Saratoga to help launch The Saratoga Special. He was single, out of work and crazy enough to believe this thing could work. He's now married, three kids, works for himself and is sane enough to make a day trip to Saratoga every summer. This year, he brought two of his boys, 11-year-old Nolan and 9-year-old Robbie, and their friend, Ryan, 11.
Fresh off a couple of winning $1 place bets, they hop in the golf cart and the annual tour begins.
"Can we see Circus?" Nolan, 11, asks.
I think of Allen Jerkens and his old standby, Circus, who we used to visit every summer.
"Was Circus a racehorse?" Nolan asks.
"No, just a pony," I say. "A great pony."
We roll to the backside, stopping near the stalls of the pony barn near the Morning Line Kitchen.
"This is Jimbo," I say, asking a bay pony to come see the boys.
Wasserman does the same clucking noise he's been doing since the first time I took him to Fair Hill Training Center back in 1990. The horses have yet to respond to the city kid's attempt at bonding.
"Is that really his name?" Wasserman asks.
I have no idea what his name is but people like knowing horses' names.
"Is he a racehorse?" Nolan asks.
I flip his lip to check for a tattoo.
"Why'd you do that?" Ryan asks.
"To see if he has a tattoo."
"A tattoo?" Nolan asks. "Why would he have a tattoo?"
I try to explain and realize it's going nowhere.
"Let's bet the next race."
I read the names to the boys and they yell out numbers like a bingo announcer. We drive the golf cart to the betting window and just get the bets down before the field for the fourth breaks on the other side of the infield.
Nobody has General Downs at a big price, but one of us hits Tale Of Mist to place. As long as we're cashing, everybody's happy.
We hop back in the golf cart and tour past Clare Court and Greentree. I ask if they want to be paperboys next summer.
They're not convinced.
I offer them lunch. They decide they'd rather eat in town.
We wait for the mile-and-a-half filly and mare allowance, landing on five of the seven starters.
"I tried to buy the Form last night, I went to two stores and couldn't find it," Wasserman says, as he reads my Form, explaining Beyer Figures. "This one's trending up, this one's trending down."
Wasserman tries to teach the boys how to read the Form.
"What's this L 122 mean?" he asks.
"The L means Lasix and the 122 is the weight he's carrying, the jockey and his tack."
"What's Lasix?" Nolan asks.
I try to explain, "It's a medication."
"For what?" Nolan asks.
"So, every horse is carrying the L medication," Nolan says.
I change the subject.
John Velazquez rides past.
"How many pairs of goggles do the jockeys wear?" Ryan asks.
"Several," I say. "They pull them down as they get dirty."
"So they throw them off?"
We bet the fifth, again hitting $1 place bet. We're rolling.
We drive back to the front side, Wasserman handing off the three kids to me while he makes a phone call.
"Let's go to the Big Red Spring."
The boys fill three cups, unsure, but willing to try.
"Salty," Ryan says.
"It's like seltzer," Robbie says.
"It's bad every year," Nolan says.
We walk away, laughing.
We bet the sixth, hit another place horse and Wasserman divvies up the money.
Time to go, I drive them to the Union Avenue gate near the Hall of Fame and they pile out of the golf cart.
Robbie climbs a tree, walking his feet up the trunk while holding a branch. Ryan tries it and laughs. Robbie throws a tennis ball in the air. Wasserman comes up with a game, "Hit the geek." A tennis ball sails past my ear.
We say goodbye for another year.