This should be easy. The last one. Number 17 this year, instead of 34 last year. The 17th time I’ve sat down to type out a column that has been running for 20 years. Twenty years. Some of the early ones are shuddering, shocking, to read. If I didn’t own half this paper with my brother, many would have never seen the light of day, the print of the page. The last one of the season should be the easiest, just 800 words, half a page to say good- bye. I’ve done it 19 times before.
This one is different. I feel like we nev- er said hello. In the strangest of years, the strangest of Saratogas, I type from an an- tique table in the guest room of a farm in Virginia. Instead of the back room in our office on East Avenue. An outsider, instead of an insider. I don’t recognize the view.
I’ve written it many times, over the first 12 sum- mers at Saratoga, when I was a jump jockey and exercise rider, I left dissatisfied, like I had missed an opportunity, squandered a summer. Over the next 19 of The Special, I left exhausted, disheveled, spent, but always satisfied with the effort, the en- deavor. This year, it’s not dissatisfaction or satisfac- tion. I wrestle with it. Certainly disappointment. A bit of melancholy. Surrealness, for sure. Sadness, no doubt. Longing, absolutely. Emptiness, definitely. So many feelings, none of them comfortable.
I’m not alone when I write that a year of life has been stolen, certainly a summer at Saratoga has been stolen, ever slamming the notion, the realiza- tion that there are finite years in our finite lives.
Like so many, I never made it to Saratoga this summer. I never walked into the paddock and stopped, awed by a horse chiseled by God, by God. I never stopped and stared at the sunrise over Bruce Levine’s barn at the Oklahoma. I never ogled over a
line of Shug’s horses standing outside his barn like time had stood still with them. I never walked up and down a hero’s shedrow, leaning in for an Ivy League education on horse flesh and horsemanship. I never got to walk with Jose, Javier, Johnny, Ju- nior or Joel as fans thrust programs to be signed and they kept talking about a masterpiece on a 9-furlong canvass. I never got to traverse the 5-mile trail at the State Park with Joe and Tom Law, the ecstasy and agony after another late-night deadline. I never got to bounce into the Paddock Bar on the final Mon- day of the meet, a decompression, a disembarkment from a place, a time, that is so fleeting and yet so permanent.
And I write this with full appreciation that if we get out of 2020 with a summer at Saratoga as the only thing we’ve lost, we’ve done well. I type this on September 11. There is no day in any of our lives that slams home that point like September 11. So here I am writing about a stolen summer on the an- niversary of a stolen, solemn day.
I remember walking into Nancy Mill- er’s barn in Unionville, Pennsylvania, to ride Succeed. Still reeling from a turbu- lent summer of The Saratoga Special, our first. Sleep-deprived, deadline hungover, I was going to go for a ride on a horse who I adored, for an escape. Kay Stew- art, a local veterinarian, pulled into the drive and told Miller, who I endearingly call Aunt Nancy, and me that the world was under attack. I didn’t know what she meant. There was no cell phone with In- ternet to pepper you with reality. An FM radio was the only mobile communica- tion.
I went for a ride, wondering about the world. It wasn’t much of an escape. Hours later, I learned of the devastation, the carnage. Like everyone, I desperately tried to reach my friends – Annie, Wass,
Pete, Charlie Moran – living in Manhattan and a few others near the Pentagon. Luckily, I was spared, I didn’t lose anyone close to me on that terrible morning.
And here we are, 19 years later, trying to survive a turbulent time again. September 11, 2001 was a strike to the heart, a power blow, an end to the last slivers of innocence that any of us still held dear. It was strange, being removed from it all, watching from afar. It was hard to grasp, hard to digest, hard to understand. This is very different, a long slow burn of a pandemic touching all of us in one way or another, coupled with the most restless time this country has faced politically, spiritually, emotional- ly, at least in my lifetime. This country has certainly gotten through worse and I certainly had more con- fidence in its resiliency than I do right now.
Here’s to meeting again in Saratoga next summer. The pandemic behind us, the sport healthier and our political divide somehow healed, or at least healing