Red Smith said it best.
“From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.”
Those were Smith’s directions to Saratoga Springs, New York, home of the best Thoroughbred racing in this country (world!). This summer, Saratoga opens its doors July 20 and runs through Labor Day. The purists say 40 days of racing is too long and perhaps they’re right, as Joe Palmer – up there with Smith for me – wrote, “Saratoga has kept on with its quiet ways, and its reward is that a little of the old time yet lingers. A man who would change it would stir champagne.”
Sure, they’ve stirred it and it’s changed, but it’s still the best we’ve got. Racing six days a week, two nights of high-dollar drama at the yearling sales, morning sunrises, languid breakfasts, lingering nightcaps, all in the crisp, Adirondack air – Saratoga has it all. For Thoroughbred participants, it’s show time, a time to put your hand on the table, see what you’ve got compared to the rest of the world. Are you right or are you wrong? There is nothing like the clarity of a finish line or the clarity of a gavel, careers are made and broken right there in the sales ring or on the racing oval. As owners and trainers agonize over their decisions, their moves, the fans salivate over their potential, their performance.
When I was a kid, Saratoga was summer. My brother, sister and I would pile into the Imperatore horse van, stalls screens tied across the open doors, in the middle of the night (Dad said the horses shipped better at night) and pile out on the loading chute outside the barn. Old jumpers with names to match – Town And Country, Odd Man, Smokum Scout – would walk off the van and into the cauldron. We walked Dad’s horses under the trees, rode our bikes (no shoes, no helmets, cut-off jean shorts) to breakfast, opened a lemonade stand one summer, swam in the quarries outside of town, ripped our hands and knees on the alpine slides in Vermont, spilled spaghetti on our Searsucker at the Italian place with the blue awnings. Some kids had Disney World, we had Saratoga. We won a few, lost a bunch and tried to make summers last forever.
I rode steeplechase races at Saratoga for 13 years, same thing, winning a few and losing a bunch, Hokan upset the New York Turf Writers Cup in 1998, that’s the best day of my career, when I finally made it, at least for a moment and at least in my mind, that was good enough for me. Like walking into Fenway and belting one out into the thin air above the Green Monster. When I retired in 2000, it was an easy decision, I was ready, an old man in a young man’s game, I didn’t have any other questions to answer, well, except for one. How do I get back to Saratoga? How do I get to spend the whole summer in Saratoga?
That’s when The Saratoga Special came to life, a daily racing newspaper that has chronicled the sport since 2001. It’s madness, brilliant madness. Early mornings, epic afternoons, late nights, all sprinkled in and around arduous deadlines, that’s my summer. So come see us this summer, you’ll see The Saratoga Special at the Morning Line Kitchen on the backstretch of Saratoga every morning. Grab a coffee and a copy, walk to the rail, watch and – most importantly – feel, the horses amble past, the sun come up, slicing through the mist and you’ll know what Smith, Palmer and all the greats were talking about when they talked about Saratoga.
So, in a few weeks, I’ll pack the car, leave the garden to overgrow, say a teary goodbye to Annie and Miles and drive north, turn left on Union Avenue and, yes by God, go back 100 years.
• Article originally published in Country Spirit Magazine.