The Inside Rail

It is Travers Day. Like none other. 

A month earlier than usual, somehow sandwiched between the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby, Saratoga’s premier race, the Midsummer Derby, serves as a date, rather than a denouement. The Travers on Aug. 8, without the fans, without the buzz, without the clarity, without the clamor, another upheaval, another disturbance in a year when everything is on the table and off the table all at the same time. 

No matter if it’s the quaint month-long meet of yesteryear or the eight-week, 40-day behemoth of today, the Travers has been and always will be the apex of Saratoga. The pillar, the post, between buildup and cooldown. You know it’s coming and then you know it’s over, the race, the meet, the summer. This year, it’s the Travers on the 18th day of a surreal Saratoga instead of the Travers on the 33rd day of a real Saratoga. 

But, don’t dare call it a prep. Just as the son is no prep for the holy spirit, the 2020 Travers should be considered as a singular race, a singular accomplishment, for whomever wins it. 

If it’s Linda Rice with Max Player, it’s the first for a woman trainer. If it’s Chad Brown with Country Grammer, it’s a new brick in an indelible wall. If it’s the Noda Brothers with longshot First Line, it’s the breakthrough. If it’s Ralph Nicks with Florida shipper Shivaree, it’s the moment when all the toil is worth it. If it’s Bob Baffert with Uncle Chuck, it’s another precise attack in a career built on them. If it’s Javier Castellano aboard Caracaro, it’s an unfathomable seventh. If it’s Bill Mott and just received South Bend, it’s the first in a career that seemed to have it all until you looked it up. If it’s Barclay Tagg, trainer of the once-beaten favorite Tiz The Law, it’s at long last, the home plate of the 3-year-old home run. 

Tagg wonders if there will be an asterisk on everything the white-faced overachiever accomplishes this year. Not in our book. For the horse and his connections, it’s still the Travers. 

As for The Special, the closest thing to Pete Hamill’s newsroom is quiet. On a day when it’s meant to be the loudest, the most vibrant, the most energetic, the most electric, when the biggest issue of the year comes to life. 

But, this is 2020. There is no office. There is no newsroom. There is no clattering of keys. There are no cell phones vibrating on wobbly desks. There are no Gabby Gaudets, Travis Stones or Jim Mulvihills squawking about looking for a Calder gyp in the back of the receiving barn for the all-quotesall-stakes tradition. There is no Joe, the leader, the gatekeeper, the steerer of the wobbly ship, slamming his fist down after another computer crash and another intern concern. There is no Tom, hopping off his bike, grabbing his recorder and press pass and heading back to the track for another stakes, another stake-out of winners who seemed to have taken it for granted. There is no reminder to untuck his pant leg from his sock. 

And, yeah, I guess there is no Friday-written Cup of Coffee or Saturday-written Travers recap in their traditional forms, somehow coming to life, to light, from a back-corner room in another makeshift office during another summer in Saratoga. No Miles Davis on the headphones trying to drown out the drunks looking for one more Vermont-brewed IPA from the office fridge. No Tom gingerly walking to my door as the clock turns to midnight, holding the sign, “Land the Plane,” made for Gaudet so many years ago and still in use so many years later. 

I type this from an antique table in Virginia. The noises are foreign, certainly foreign in August, my first August away from Saratoga since 1988. Miles throwing dirty clothes down the back steps. The toilet running upstairs. The corner fan in the front shed whirring as three retirees stand blithely by, another summer day drifting past. A distant mower groans. A UPS truck clatters cinders on the front stoop. John Imbriale choreographs Friday’s action, but there is no one here to share the wins or lament the losses. 

I think again of Hamill, the journalist’s journalist, the columnist’s columnist, who died Wednesday. I read his obituary again, landing and hovering over his take of the newsroom. 

“The room was more exciting to me than any movie, an organized chaos of editors shouting from desks, copy boys dashing through doors into the composing room, men and women typing at big manual typewriters, telephones ringing, the wire service tickers clattering, everyone smoking and putting butts out on the floor.” 

He would have enjoyed the Travers edition, the Travers tradition, the Travers newsroom. 

The room was more exciting to me than Holy Bull’s moxie, an unorganized chaos of writers and interns shouting from fold-up tables, cold pizza, iced coffee, day-old donuts, Joe’s kids bombarding through the door for another stack of papers, trainer’s kids putting innate nuances into actual words, locals wondering why they signed up for this gig as their friends cavort at the track, keys clipping rather than clacking, but with the same urgency as Breslin, Talese and Hamill, races from across Union Avenue rolling past on a corner TV, racing fans coming and going along the East Avenue sidewalk, another Travers, but one like no other, come and gone.