The Inside Rail

Sometimes, you feel guilty. Guilty for enjoying Saratoga. We complain about rainy days, lost photos and restaurant lines. We worry about races going, horses staying sound and pick-four sequences. We lament short fields, bad trips and long Hall of Fame speeches. We debate about Saturday stakes, the next best 2-year-old and which Ortiz is going to be leading rider. We fret over buying expensive yearlings, getting reservations for Saturday night and having enough beds for friends and family coming to town.

First-world problems, first-world issues, first-world questions.

Saratoga provides a shelter from the storm. Whether it’s the storm of our own lives or the storm of the real world. The founders got it right, creating a race meet at a spa town in August, an ideal spot on the calendar, this is our summer vacation, our summer escape, a time to cherish our sport and appreciate our friendships, many built during previous Saratoga summers. Give any of us five minutes and we’ll rattle off our first trip, our best trip and our latest trip to Saratoga.

We went out on our old friend Rich Cristiano’s boat Tuesday, imagine, a boat ride on Saratoga Lake and dinner at Lake Local. And you wondered why we stopped doing Wednesday papers. Joe and Tom nearly reneged, too much to do, and then relented. We drifted among the reeds on Fish Creek, jumped in the lake where it’s 90 feet deep, drank a few beers, swapped fishing and gambling stories, ate tacos and wings while kids chased ducks on the beach, but mostly we decompressed, taking a break from real life, well, real life in Saratoga, which isn’t real life at all. 

We live in a bubble – happily in a bubble.

Since we started The Special in 2001, that bubble has rarely been pierced.

The first actually came eight days after that first meet ended, when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11. Saratoga met reality. Nothing has been the same since.

In 2005, it was Hurricane Katrina. We watched the pain and fear on the faces of Jim Mulvihill, Al Stall, Dallas Stewart and other friends from New Orleans, it brought the disaster to reality, it was their homes, their families, their neighborhoods. They hovered around tack-room televisions, watching dikes break, houses washing away like soap down a drain, lives lost. Horse racing never felt so unimportant, so trivial, so minute. Mulvihill wrote a column about it, a natural writer who never looked fussed on any deadline or assignment, he bled that day, a natural disaster 1,463 miles away engulfed our office. You just wanted to hug him.

There have been a few other moments, good and bad, when we’ve picked up our heads and noticed what was going on outside Saratoga. It takes a lot. Every four years, the Olympics have served up a good moment of reality. We’ve watched Michael Phelps emerge as a star, stay a star and return as a star from four offices. Every time, we stopped what we were doing to cherish greatness.

It takes the tragedy of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, and the enormity of Michael Phelps to pierce our bubble. 

Sadly, our bubble was pierced again Saturday. But, not right away.

Ten minutes after Oskar Blues upset Airtouch, providing Dylan Davis with a win on the day he became a father, all hell broke loose in Charlottesville, Va.

James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Ohioan drove his car into a crowd of people, killing Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal. Fields represented white nationalists, neo-Nazis or some other faction I hate to even type and Heyer represented the rest of us.

She died in the streets of a southern town with a rich history and, unfortunately, a statue of Robert E. Lee, which became a senseless rallying cry to the bloodthirsty and belligerent.

Twenty-five minutes after Heyer was struck down, Pioneer Spirit won a starter allowance at Saratoga. Two hours and eight minutes after the paralegal who stood up for the disenfranchised was killed, I yelled for 16-1 Honey Dont to win the sixth. The 2-year-old finished second, I cursed, briefly. Five hours after a daughter was taken, World Approval won the Fourstardave.

While at the races, we worried about the soft turf wreaking havoc on the Fourstardave, still ignorant of Heyer’s death, the death of two state troopers in a helicopter crash and the injuries to 34 others on a dark day in Virginia. Back in the office, as we banged out recaps and features, columns and captions, the Charlottesville tragedy began to register. A town we’ve known as the host of a steeplechase meet in the spring and fall and from our friends who went to the University of Virginia now had a different context, a different meaning.

Somehow, Charlottesville became the vortex of hatred and bigotry, disillusion and disenchantment, adding another chapter to a sad and scary time for our country. Angry men are driving cars into crowds, spewing more hatred, dividing more people.

The president can’t find the words that might start some healing. He speaks of there being good on both sides. Only one side brought good to Charlottesville, and Heyer was on it.

I can’t decide how I feel about being in Saratoga, watching horses run around in circles, worrying about which tie to wear, stressing over another deadline, lounging on a boat, when our country is in turmoil from another terrorist attack – this one home grown.

On one hand, I feel lucky to be involved in a captivating sport. On the other, I feel guilty for standing idly by while Heyer died a senseless death.

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