Cup of Coffee: A Few Weeks

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I hand a robot-themed lunch box to the teenager who runs the front desk at day camp, turn and lean down to hug Miles. I pick him up, squeeze him tight and the long goodbye has finally come to a close. I set him down, wipe a tear out of my eye and look him in the eye. “I’ll see you in a few weeks, buddy.” The bravest 6-year-old (actually 6 ½-year-old as he reminds me most days) looks me in the eye and says, “Dad, it’s just few weeks. Don’t cry about it.” 

I walk out of Hill School, climb into my packed car, type in Saratoga Springs, NY on my GPS and think, ‘Yeah, it’s just a few weeks.’

And so it begins – the 49-day, 40-racing-day, 34-issue odyssey that is Saratoga.

Perhaps – hopefully – it’ll only be a few weeks before Miles and his mom come to Saratoga. Or, it could be seven weeks before I see them. They juggle. We juggle. Everybody juggles. Except for Miles, a few weeks, seven weeks, he won’t mind either way.

The Saratoga Special begins its 15th season right here. Back then, Joe was the one crying with his boys, and I was wondering why it was such a big deal. Joe asked me Wednesday night, “Nolan was born in May and we started the paper in July. What were we thinking?” Great question. Everybody cried that summer. His three boys seem older now than they seemed younger then, if that makes any sense. Life, I guess.

Ryan, 22, graduated college and landed his first real job, at an engineering firm, doing things I can’t compute. He’ll be here on the weekends, a tourist on a mission. God help us. Jack, 19, finished his first year of college, he just walked out of the office carrying a set of car keys and a paper rack, he shopped at the farmer’s market and cooked dinner for The Special team last night. He used to run the menial task division, now we couldn’t do it without him. Nolan, 14, mans the ship at home, on the swim team, running cross-country, taking care of the dog. He’ll be here next week, walking the dog. He looks and acts like his dad, whenever I see him, I see my 14-year-old brother, walking hot horses and telling me to roll the bandages tighter at the Annex.   

As for Miles, he’s seven years younger than The Special, wants to be a sea rescuer, an architect and a producer of plays when he grows up. He tolerates horse racing, that’s all. His favorite thing to do in Saratoga is ride in the golf cart and dance with the band located between the paddock and the clubhouse. I hope they’re still there and I hope it’s only a few weeks.

Saratoga marks the passage of time. I’ve written that sentence every year since 2001. In one form or another, a column about the greats we’ve lost – Frankel, P.G., the Chief…or in a column about the kids growing up…or in a hello column…or a goodbye column. It’s the one time of year that we stop and look around, whether it’s before the meet or after, there is a moment to stop and see where you’ve been, where you’re going, who’s here, who isn’t here, what’s happened in the last year, what hasn’t happened. And, no, I did not cut-and-paste that from another column, it just sounds like it.

This year, the passage of time makes a quick cut.

The Chief is gone. Nancy “The Paper Lady” Robinson has retired. Mike Hushion is back, whew. Those are the few friends who drifted through my passage of time thoughts this morning.

Arriving Tuesday evening, driving down Broadway, windows open, listening to the city’s vibe, I looked around at the big buildings, the chains, the tidal wave of progress engulfing my old haunt, the Parting Glass, wow, the town has changed. Wandering around the track Wednesday and Thursday morning, I looked around at all the changes, the signs, the barriers, the new policies, the tidal wave of progress engulfing my favorite place, the paddock, wow, the track has changed. Listening to horsemen, fans, locals, the vibe is troubling. They’re here, but they’re stressed, stretched, worrying about their old friend, Saratoga. The oldest, best track in America is bending, a victim of her success, horse racing’s Giving Tree. How far can she bend? How much can she give?

The passage of time makes me wonder about her. A year older, a year later, we’ll enjoy being here, clinging onto what is good and hoping it never goes away. And, remember, it’s just a few weeks, right?