Cup of Coffee: Balance

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A writer asked me last week about American Pharoah coming to Saratoga, back when his appearance hinged on a breeze.

“Do you want him to come here?”

And, in one word, well two words, I had crossed over to the dark side.

“Not really,” I answered.

I caught myself, but it was too late, I had gone from being a fan of the sport to a worker in the sport. It’s something I never wanted to become. I rode jump races for the thrill, for the rush. It wasn’t a job, it was a life. We started this newspaper because we love the game, we’re intrigued by horsemen, we’re humbled by the horse, we’re challenged by the process of writing and racing. Fifteen years later, I found myself more daunted by the hassles and hoops that come with a Triple Crown winner coming to Saratoga than enraptured by the drama and joy that come with a Triple Crown winner coming to Saratoga.

It did not sit well. I’ve thought about it for a week, turning it over in my mind, wrestling with why there was dread where there was once glee.

And, yes, there are mitigating factors.

Sleep deprivation will do that to you, most mornings I wake up and my toothbrush is still wet and the dryer’s still running.

The sheer enormity of The Special these days will do that to you – we will write and design more pages this year than in any other season. It’s 8:44 Friday night as I type, we have miles to go before we rest.

The added security and protocol will do that to you, just knowing that access will be limited, passes will be checked and the track will no longer feel like our backyard. And, yes, I understand why all this is needed and there is no blame cast.

The seven-stakes extravaganza will do that to you, trying to accurately and appropriately cover the Personal Ensign, Ballerina, King’s Bishop, Forego, Sword Dancer, Travers and Ballston Spa…impossible. At least the way we like to cover them. I look back at past editions of these classics, walking up the track with The Chief after Shine Again won the Ballerina, sipping champagne with Graham Motion – before he was Graham Motion – after Better Talk Now won the Sword Dancer, walking back to the barn with Wally Dollase after Ten Most Wanted won the Travers. That’s not happening this year. We’ll give them a stroke, a gloss, and have to move on to the next one. And, yes, I understand the bottom line of an in-demand simulcast signal but it’s painful to dip and not wade. As a fan, yeah, to sit in the boxes and watch the super seven come at you every 35 minutes, that sounds like fun. As a writer, a worker, it’s like walking into a sauna and knowing you’re not coming out.

The length of the meet will do that to you. And, again, I understand the need, but Saratoga used to feel like a camp out, now it feels like a sit in as we race six days a week, 10, 11 races a day, for 40 days.

Racing was designed as an outlet, an escape, a lark. Instead of going to the beach, you went to the track. Instead of buying a boat, you bought a horse. Instead of saving your two bucks, you played the double. It wasn’t a job, it was a jaunt.

I know I’m not alone. I see bitterness creep into trainer’s attitudes, as they rack up bills and losses. I sense negativity where I used to see positiveness from owners, who got in the game for the ride and now feel like they’ve been ridden. Writers, whew, most are dead or took a buyout long ago. The few who remain carry the workload of the ones who are gone. Working in a shoe store sounds enticing.

And, that’s where I’m stuck – balancing enjoyment and employment in this sport.

Then American Pharoah went for a gallop Friday morning. The grandstand swelled, the apron packed, an ovation erupted as he came into view. Cell phones were held high, they looked like lighters at my first Crosby Stills & Nash concert back in the ’80s. My aunt, Nancy Miller, drove from Pennsylvania to see him, she’s not even staying for the race. Trainers stopped fretting and walked to the rail, for a glimpse. Owners came out, interested in someone else’s horse, a first. Grooms wiped poultice onto their pants and walked away from their stalls, for a view. Security guards turned to watch. Traffic stopped on Union Avenue. The Big Red Spring stopped flowing, well, it could have for all we know.

For a moment, I was a fan again, like that day in June at Belmont Park when he flicked past, the noise cascaded down from the rafters and the place rocked in universal celebration. We were all one.

Maybe it will happen again today and if it does, I will have changed my answer from not really to hell yes.