I was asked to write a 45-second script about Saratoga. An essay, about anything, the old days, the new days, what it’s meant, what it means.
Tie it all together. Personal, my essay. Have you ever listened to “This I Believe” on NPR? That’s what I’m thinking. The horses, the history, the people, the town and why it works, why Saratoga captivates us. I need to check with Mom, but I’ve seen photos of me as Secretariat galloped to the start for the Whitney, so I’m guessing I’ve been coming here 41 years…45 seconds for 41 years.
I started thinking, jotting down thoughts as fast as they came to me. That’s how I do my best work.
Secretariat from the long wooden bench in front of the grandstand. Forego in the mud, thinking, ‘This is Forego…?’ as he toiled. Dad waking us up at midnight and climbing into the Imperatore Horse Van because the horses traveled better at night. The feeling of making that turn on Union Avenue, hanging out the van door, seeing the green paint. Lassie’s Motel. The Blue Spruce. My sister Sheila.
The Pink Sheet, delivered at night, with the charts of that day’s races and the photo finishes, like the Internet before the Internet.
The car ride when we got lost and went over the George Washington Bridge – not the best route from Delaware to Saratoga – knowing what was about to happen. Driving to Montreal to see a safari, the bear climbing on the hood of the Chevy station wagon and biting our iron hood ornament. DiRossi’s in the rain. The rental house that had pong on the TV.
Dad catching the loose horse on the turn, my hero. Dad picking out Foligno as a yearling at the sales and never getting to train him. My mom playing a fortune teller at a neighborhood fair that my sister and her summer friends organized.
Hounding jockeys for autographs and goggles, Don MacBeth, Cash Asmussen, Steve Cauthen, Jorge Velasquez, Cordero…
Town And Country being brought down by Mystan early, Dad galloping after him, hair blowing in the breeze. Odd Man bowing a tendon. Joe Mac, a suspensory.
Those long days at the Annex – between Mickey Walsh, Burley Cocks and Mikey Smithwick – trying to quell the nerves and cool the horses. Hawaiki finally winning one for us.
My first jobs. Mickey Preger and Mike Freeman. Gentlemen. Give me 10 minutes and I could give you names for every horse in every stall…Fearless Leader, Little Bad Wolf, Kembolina, Bee’s Prospector, Wild Disco, Majesterian…
Hustling my first ride, Bureau Chief for Janet Elliot. He finished third, I felt like I had arrived.
Burning the knees out of my jeans on the alpine slide. Getting the number of a girl I would marry 16 years later, my heart thumping as I asked and quaking when she handed me a folded piece of paper.
The glory days of the Parting Glass, the closest thing to Cheers I’ve ever known. Walking in the first day and knowing you were a year older.
Losing three straight on Hodges Bay, the favorite each time, my fault each time.
To Ridley in 1994, breaking a six-year drought. Then Dunn’s Gap and Sassello making it three in seven days. Hokan winning the Turf Writers when it was the eighth race on the card, the crowd applauding as he jogged back, now that was arrival.
Crashing my car while trying to drive from Saratoga to Atlantic City to run a horse and back to Saratoga to get to P.G. Johnson’s for first set, I woke up in the guard rail, trying to hit the snooze button. I totaled the car but still made it to work on time.
The Travers. Holding Pattern, a race my brother still talks about. Willow Hour. Temperence Hill. Birdstone in the rain. Alpha and Golden Ticket, careening down the steps with both their trainers as the numbers flashed.
Chris McCarron crying at his Hall of Fame induction. Johnny and Leona “Stand by your Man” Velazquez crying as well. So many others, some stoic, some static, all accomplished, making all of us stop and think about our lives, our careers.
Jonathan Kiser. Broken ankle. Self-published book, 5,000 copies on a Union Avenue porch. Flasher winning without me. Another test. When do I pass?
The birth of The Saratoga Special. 2001. The uneasiness of not knowing, the fear of failure. Frankel schooling me. It’s when I became a writer. Late nights, early mornings and satisfied seasons.
Rachel Alexandra, the loudest I’ve ever heard. Union Avenue in the morning. Union Avenue at night. Apse in 2013.
OK, so that’s what I’ve jotted down so far, there are a lot more. Personal and professional. Good and bad. Monumental and mundane.
Those are mine. What are yours?