The Inside Rail

It’s 8:32 Friday night. Issue 33. Column 33.

I just drank a double espresso cold brew from High Brew Coffee. Fifty calories. 130-150 mg of caffeine.

I might need another.

Graphic designer Todd Koch warns me about the Death Wish Cold Brew that I have just pulled out of the fridge.

“I had to stop drinking those,” Koch says, shaking his head.

Koch rides a Triumph Bonneville, a hot-rod motorcycle named after the salt flats in northwestern Utah, to work every day. Koch’s bar for intensity would be high. I take his word for it, putting the thin can back into the mini fridge. I’ll wait, see if the first jolt jolts and I get inspired.

I look around the office. The kids are back at school, it’s the die-hards, the lifers, now. Two more issues. We see the runway, now to land the plane.

It’s been a long and challenging meet, certainly, the most challenging of the recent ones. We lost Marylou Whitney, Carmen Barrera and Randy Romero. Sea Hero, too. Heat cancelled one card. Rain cancelled most of another and threatened many more. At times, it felt like we had roused the racing gods from a nap and were paying for the intrusion.

Longer than it’s ever been, we will have been here two months, that’s hard on the tourists, hard on the locals, hard on the track, hard on the town. We never wanted to be here two months, never expected to be here two months. It is long. The first few weeks were surreal, like a soft opening of a new restaurant. Saratoga is not meant to have a soft opening. It’s meant to be urgent, vibrant, fleeting, come in with a bang and go out with a bang. This year, it has felt more arduous than anything else. Sure, a few days felt urgent and vibrant, but not many.

It’s the conversations I enjoy the most and will miss the most, the ones along the rail in the morning before the day begins to tighten its grip. But this summer, it seems like all of the conversations end with a long, downward-trending rant about what’s wrong with the sport. Chad Brown’s domination, too many races, the Labor Board, workman’s compensation, the dead rail, the shrinking foal crop, rough riding, questionable stewards’ calls, unsound horses, the lack of opportunities, the disconnect between horsemen and management, the cheaters, the list goes on and on. Nothing ever gets accomplished in these rants, but we always wind up there. Saratoga used to feel like a respite, a time to revel in what is good in racing, not wallow in what is wrong.

Earlier today, I spent an hour, 22 minutes and 33 seconds on Bill Mott’s Stable Tour. It’s a long and enlightening conversation. I feel lucky to be invited into Elate’s stall, to marvel at the brute and brawn of an old friend. I feel lucky to be invited into Channel Maker’s domain, just to respect the high-headed overachiever. I feel lucky to be invited into Hemlock’s shoeing session, just to appreciate the fine art of a horse’s hoof. If I loved baseball like I love horse racing, would I have ever been able to walk around the locker room, the dugout, the diamond with Joe Torre? That’s what it’s like for me and I hope it is conveyed to you.

It is my favorite conversation. Well, having it, typing it out is my least favorite. I’m 1:4 at dictation. If the interview is a minute long, it takes me four minutes to type it. I know, I know, it’s some kind of mental block, looking at the screen for the words instead of allowing my fingers to be free. An hour, 22 minutes and 33 seconds, that took me over four hours, all afternoon to be exact. Joe and Tom scoff.

As I finish transcribing the conversation, Mott and I are far off the subject of today’s horses for the Stable Tour. We’re talking about his old pony, Solenzano, how he died of cushing’s disease, about how Mott runs horses he knows are slow while most people wouldn’t run them knowing they would sully their percentages and, sure enough, we’re talking about baseball. Far better than a rant about field size. Mott threw out the first pitch at the Yankees’ game after Drosselmeyer won the Belmont, he shows me the photo in his office, then shows me the day Singleton won the big race in Detroit in 1979.

“My brother played baseball, I got the job as the bat boy. I played midgets, I could catch but I didn’t have any control. I went to the ranch when I was 12, the racetrack when I was 14, that messed up any thoughts about baseball,” Mott said. “Well, I wish horse racing were as popular now as it was when we had just baseball and horse racing. Now, you have so many things that they televise and show. People are gambling but aren’t coming to the races. You would like to see every Saturday like Travers Saturday. That picture of Singleton. That was 1979. The stands are filled. In Detroit.”

And there we go, dreaming about the glory days of baseball and horse racing.

It’s 10:27. Column 33 is finished. The Death Wish is still in the fridge.