The Inside Rail

It was the Travers. I was in trouble.

My on-again-off-again girlfriend and future wife called and said she wanted to come to Saratoga that weekend. Travers Weekend. It must be 20 years ago, maybe more.

On a landline, next to a couch with a couple of sleeping jump jockeys, in a shared rental off Union Avenue, I began making phone calls, moving mountains. I started with dinner reservations.

I called Sperry’s, nothing. I called the Wishing Well, they laughed. I called Lillian’s, scoffed. Scallions, The Fire House, Old Bryan Inn, Wheatfields… I called the restaurant at the Adelphi and asked if they had a table for two, Saturday night, any time of night. Please!

“Are you The Pope?”

“As a matter of fact…”

They hung up.

I think we wound up at the Anchor Inn with Denny McCabe and those jump jockeys.

Now, for a box at the races.

Like every horseman who has had family come to Saratoga or an old college roommate passing through town or a prospective client who wants to go racing or had a horse running in a race that wasn’t the stakes, I took a deep breath and called horsemen’s relations. If I were only The Pope. Looking back, I’m shocked at my audacity. Always half intimidated by her and all the way impressed by her, Carmen Barrera answered, quickly, sharply. I asked the impossible.

“Carmen, is there any chance I could get a box for Saturday…see, my girlfriend is coming to town…it would mean a lot…I know it’s a longshot…anything at all…just two chairs…we can share with someone…the Turf Terrace will do…it would mean so much…”

Barrera, who started at NYRA as a white cap in 1978 before becoming director of horsemen’s relations, had heard every story, fielded every request. She was friendly and affable – I don’t ever remember not knowing her – but far from a pushover.

“Sean, it’s the Travers…” she said, in that concise and clear New York way.

“I know, Carmen, I know…” I stammered.

“I’ll write your name down and see what I can do,” Barrera said. “Check with me later.”

And, despite the odds, despite the scarcity of seats on Travers Day, despite the barrage of calls and requests she would receive, I knew Barrera had written my name down and would see what she could do.

I called her back Friday, the day before the Travers. Again, she answered quickly and succinctly.

“Yeah, I got something for you,” Barrera said. “You can pick them up. After 11.”

As I began to gush my gratitude, she hung up.

You know that old saying, do you want to speak to the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s going on? Well, Barrera knew what was going on.

You had to love her style. Barrera was the Harry the Hat of the Saratoga box seats, moving, shaking, ducking and diving and keeping her call more often than not. I’m not sure how she did it, but she juggled her job and her friends with natural zeal and zest and also directness and decisiveness. She was sweet and stern all at the same time. On the rare occasion, when she couldn’t deliver, she still made you feel good about it. I had never been denied with such tenderness. I would find myself apologizing for asking.

This year, I walked into her office the day before the A.P. Smithwick and asked for a box for British clients with a runner in the Grade 1 jump stakes. Like always, she jotted the owner’s name down on her desk, never really said yes or no, but, somehow, I knew it was covered. I picked up the envelope of tickets the next day. After 11. It was always after 11. Walking into her corner office (nobody in the history of NYRA deserved a corner office more) at the end of the racing office, it was like walking into a tack room and a dispatch station. The place bustled with activity but also had a natural calm. I’m not sure how it happened, but that was Barrera, a born racetracker who could deal cards in a firestorm.

It will never be the same.

Barrera died Thursday. Niece of Triple Crown winning trainer, Laz, daughter of Belmont Stakes-winning Luis, cousin to NYRA’s racing facilities manager, Juan Dominguez, Barrera was 60 years old. In what has already been a surreal and sad season at Saratoga, Barrera’s death is devastating. Jolting. A moment of silence and a winner’s circle gathering after the second race came together in spontaneous wonderment, too raw to digest, too hard to believe.

Maybe Marylou needed someone to divvy up the seats? Maybe Sea Hero needed an escort to the trustees room. Or, perhaps, our old friends Rick Violette and Allen Jerkens needed someone to whip the place into shape. I don’t know, that’s probably too trite, too cute. I don’t understand death. Never have. Carmen Barrera, gone at 60. Racing has lost another patch of the quilt. Nah, she wasn’t a patch on the quilt, she was the quilt.