The Inside Rail

Has it hit you? Like, really, hit you. Like, stop-and-sink hit you. 

It hadn’t fully hit me until a couple of phone calls and emails this week, ones that hung in the air, stopped me in mid-sentence, mid-scroll. Ones that made me ponder life, made me wistful for better days, made me count my blessings, made me curse the uncertainty, the cruelty of today. 

Shug McGaughey switched from talking about Code Of Honor to asking how I was doing. I didn’t know how I was doing until listening to the recording of our conversation. Sadly, I now know. 

We talked about the Met Mile for six minutes and about Saratoga, about life, for another 18 minutes, knowing we wouldn’t see each other on Opening Day this summer like so many summers before. Knowing I wouldn’t hand off a crisp copy of The Saratoga Special while a set of bay homebreds waited at my favorite gap. Knowing we wouldn’t walk down the back steps, just he and I, another Grade 1 in the books, like we did after last year’s Travers. Knowing we wouldn’t enjoy the freedom of a summer at Saratoga, one of the last bastions of freedom in a sport that slowly slips into a business. Shug will be there, but it won’t be free, worrying and wondering if it’s smart to be there. I’ll be here at home, wishing I was there and wishing I wasn’t all at the same time, a confliction that only Covid-19 can deliver. 

An email about protocols from NYRA’s Pat McKenna. Just reading it pained me, I understand it, am not complaining about it, but it was a hammer blow, a reality punch of today’s world. Limited access, by appointment only, negative Covid tests…the reality of a very different Saratoga, a very different summer. All the while, I think of my friend, Pat, about his dad who he lost during this insidious time. I think of my dad, 85, riding his bike solo around a bay-view neighborhood, another Saratoga slipping away. We talk racing on the phone, that’s all we’ve got. 

An email from my old friend Rob Griffo. I’ve written about him before. He took a 15-minute break from the veteran’s crisis hotline Sunday morning, to say how much he’ll miss seeing us this summer, that it had just hit him. 

Rob is an old soul, I’ve known him seven years, feels like 70 and then some. We met at a Saratoga War Horse benefit. I offered him a golf cart tour in the morning. The stress fell away as he told me how he tries to hold the line of another desperate soldier, praying, hoping that a gunshot doesn’t end the call. He and his wife, Phyllis, escape reality and come to the track each summer. I thought back to the day when I nodded to Shug and he nodded to me and we walked up to the Kentucky Derby winner’s stall. I said, “This is Orb.” Phyllis and Rob couldn’t decide if they should laugh or cry, they did both. No, there won’t be any meetings this year, no coffee from the picnic table at the Morning Line, no slow rolls under and into the middle of Clare Court, no Derby winners, no hugs and high fives of shared moments, shared escapes. 

A conversation with Michael “Whitey” McCarthy. Figuring it would be fun to include our first California trainer in the Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour, we traded texts for a few days and managed a 36-minute conversation Friday afternoon. I thought it would be about Ce Ce, Ohio and Rushie and it was, until I asked him if he was traveling to Keeneland for the Blue Grass and he told me he was on Day 30 of Covid-19. The follow-up questions didn’t come as easy. For a moment, I was thinking about the fragility of life rather than the fragility of a race meet. Thinking about a husband and a father, suffering through a pandemic, weathering a 21-day quarantine, hoping against hope that his wife, Erin, and daughter, Stella, would stay healthy (they have). 

And that’s the thing that is so unsettling. Should you feel sad about Saratoga, sad about a disturbance to your life that is still ultimately just a disturbance? Is it OK to feel disappointed about missing Saratoga when others are missing loved ones? Whitey’s words hung in the air, “People are losing their lives, people are losing quality of life so I’m obviously very grateful to be up and going back about my business…” 

Yeah, it hit me then. Saratoga won’t be Saratoga this summer. And that’s OK and not OK all at the same time. Yes, there will be a meet, or at least it’s scheduled. During this tenuous and turbulent time, everything seems fragile, uncertain. Hopefully NYRA has made the right move. And, perhaps, there will be a semblance of Saratoga for a few, but certainly not all. 

I wonder about The Special, about its message, about its legacy, about this year’s interns who never got a chance. I wonder about the $2 bettors, the picnic-table fans who have a favorite tree, a favorite jockey, a favorite bet. I wonder about my friends who I meet for a beer at the Paddock Bar at the end of the meet, celebrating another summer, another Saratoga. I wonder about the locals who count on Saratoga and all its glory for their livelihood, for their salvation. I wonder about the horses, the horsemen, the friends, the family. I wonder about all of them. I wonder if it’s hit them.