There’s Lena. Sparky. Robbie. Clocker Dave. Cindy. Rusty’s cat. The long shrill of another lost horse signaling to another lost horse, they’ll settle down in a few days, once, they know that this place is OK.
Without a golf cart, without an assignment, I walk. I’ve made this walk every year since 2001. The walk before the run, the calm before the storm, the solo before the cacophony. In the first years, I started early, first-set, 5:30 early, worrying and wondering if we could pull it off. That’s changed, this year, it’s after 8 by the time I begin to walk. Someday, I’ll wear shorts.
I show my media badge at the East Avenue gate as the first horse gallops past the quarter pole of the Oklahoma, I don’t recognize the saddle towel or the jockey, not sure if that’s good or bad. The Uber line waits. The Whitney stand greets. An outrider’s flak jacket and helmet balance atop a white rail, his horse grazes, he drinks a lemonade, taking a break during the break. A water truck slides under its spout, filling up, emptying out. Three tractors do their slow rolls around the Oklahoma, a mesmerizing, hypnotic dance, old scars making way for new paths.
A Belmont Park condition book holds a spot in The Special’s paper box near the clocker’s stand. The lawn looks like a lawn, green and lush, that won’t last, Augusta green will look like August brown soon.
Bow White smiles and waves from the shade of his pony shack across from the seven-eighths pole. “Another year,” he says. Yeah, another year.
I walk past Jim O’Connell’s tree, his plaque, his life. Oh, what he would do for another year.
I look around and marvel at the same people doing the same thing year after year, then wonder if they’re thinking the same thing as I walk and scribble notes into a reporter’s notebook that hasn’t seen the light of day since last year. I’ve been making this walk on horseback or footfall for 30 years. I spent my first full summer here in 1989, taking this tour with Mona Massimo, Little Bad Wolf and Fearless Leader for Mickey Preger. Since 2001, it’s by foot, the first steps of the Saratoga Through-Hike. Some things have changed, many things haven’t. It’s July 10, whew, that’s a change. What used to be a jaunt has become a deployment. I don’t want to think about it.
Graham Motion is in a new spot, behind Shug. Diodoro, too. Ryerson and Rusty, the same. Mott, Shug, Clement lined up, three sluggers in the heart of the lineup. Erma Scott, from the edge of a Grade 1 winner’s stall, greets me with a question and a quest, “Where’s The Special?” Tomorrow, Erma, God willing, tomorrow.
Richard Migliore, Gary Stevens, Chris Landeros and Eric Guillot circle around two golf carts. The ex jockeys compare neck fusions. The present jockey tunes them out and thinks about the biggest swing he’s ever taken, the first step up Mount Saratoga. Guillot, well, he’s spinning yarns and planning gumbo parties.
Stevens talks about the last day, a lunging filly, whiplash, a sixteenth of an inch. Over. The Hall of Famer drove across the country from his California home earlier this summer, he’ll be here all meet.
It’s the first conversation of many, 40 days of racing, 56 days of conversations. Yeah, 56 days…two months…one-sixth of my year, your year, right here. Saratoga offers a respite from real life, of course, but it also offers an opportunity. As someone once said to me, “If you can’t make it here…I don’t care if you’re shining shoes or delivering papers, there’s opportunity here.” Yeah, opportunity. That’s what it’s all about as Opening Day ticks down. Make an impact, change your life, walk out of here without regret.
I stop at Rusty Arnold’s barn as the trainer sits in a plastic chair on the edge of the walking ring. “Been awhile.” “Yeah, about a year ago, right here.” His phone rings, he apologizes. I’d rather pet a horse anyway. Sarah Arnold nods a silent approval and I duck under the wooden rail to meet the Arnolds’ most recent Grade 1 winner. Concrete Rose walks to the front of her stall and melts her head into my shoulder. I pat her head, rub around her ears, along her bridle path, the first horse I meet on the 2019 journey. I could stay all day but know I don’t have all day. I say goodbye to Concrete Rose, Morticia next door, Sarah and Rusty and meander past Tom Morley’s barn, past Steve Asmussen’s barn and weave my way back to where I started.
I walk out of the gate and make a right onto East Avenue, the first of many rights onto East Avenue, thinking about all the years behind us and all the years ahead of us. My phone buzzes in my back pocket. I reach, turn and look at the screen, the alarm/alert punched in so many months ago says it all.
Saratoga. Tomorrow. And now, today.