Reunion at the Breeders’ Cup

- -

We loosely called ourselves the “OTB Club.”

At various times of the week, when all our classes for the day at Castleton State College were finished, we’d pile in the car and make the 20-minute drive across the state line to catch the races at the Whitehall OTB. Located up on a hill on Route 18 across from a cemetery, the OTB parlor shared space with a restaurant and bar.

The place was occupied by characters, locals, vagabonds, you know, basically what you’d expect at an OTB in such a small community. It was rarely crowded. Most of the people who were there – I shouldn’t say people, but rather older disheveled men – smoked. This was all before smoking bans, so we’d go back to school smelling like we’d just polished off a pack of Camels. If we didn’t have a copy of Daily Racing Form, which was often since it was impossible to get one in Vermont and close to impossible in Whitehall, we’d be relegated to standing in a small crowd against a wall where the past performances were tacked up for public consumption.

The options for betting at the time – either the fall of 1989 or the winter and spring of 1990 – were a lot fewer than they are today. The choices were Aqueduct or Belmont Park, Finger Lakes or whatever harness track was racing in the afternoon.

Sometimes we won, padding our bankrolls with enough cash to afford a stop at McDonald’s in Fair Haven on the ride home or to contribute our share to a beer run that may or may not successfully go down later that night. Yes we were only 18 or 19, but keep in mind we were college freshmen.

Our group consisted of several members, but the core (regulars) was myself, my roommate, Rob Tatro and Kevin Savard.

The three of us, still friends today and in touch occasionally via email or Facebook and the rare get-together, watched a lot of races during our year together at Castleton.

The last race I remember watching together was the 1990 Kentucky Derby, not at the OTB but in the TV room on the fourth floor of the “New Dorm,” when Unbridled beat Summer Squall and Carl Nafzger famously provided the stretch call to his elderly owner Frances Genter. That’s a stretch of more than 25 years, or nearly 10,000 days, and it came to an end last weekend in Lexington for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland.

The impromptu reunion came together quickly.

It all started a week before the Breeders’ Cup when Kevin sent a text asking, “Hey dude, do you know if I can get a general admission ticket for Saturday only at Keeneland for a reasonable price…all I’m seeing is $85 on Stubhub.”

As it turned out I had two general admission tickets that weren’t spoken for. We worked out the details and Kevin got ready. During the course of our back-and-forth I asked him if he had use for the other ticket.

“I was going to try to get world traveller Tatro to go. Hang on to both tix for a couple hours and I’ll try to convince him.”

“Get him on board, I’ve got a ticket.”

A week later there we were, standing in the walkway behind the box seats at Keeneland as American Pharoah and the rest of the field went to the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. We’d seen each other the night before, first for a beer at West Sixth Brewing and then a casual dinner at Billy’s Bar-B-Q, and throughout the day. The latter always felt rushed, either because we were trying to make bets or I was rushing off to cover a race. Before the Breeders’ Cup Turf I made a decision that I’d stick with them to watch the Classic, no matter what, and that we’d stay in the spot up from the sixteenth pole to see if American Pharoah could go out a winner.

During the approximately 45-minute stretch after the conclusion of the Turf and the start of the Classic – when we weren’t running bets or getting a drink – I mentioned that I was curious how they wound up in Lexington for the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. I knew how they came to Kentucky, but I really wanted to know how they came to be at Keeneland on Halloween.

Since I wasn’t about to interview my friends right there, and because I’d already told them once the Classic was over I planned to hustle down to the racetrack, I figured I’d send them a note the next day.

“Do me a favor, email me both of your thought processes about coming to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup. I want to use in a column about getting together with two of my oldest friends for a spectacular day at a great racetrack. TL”

They’re both detail guys, Rob the teacher and Kevin the computer programmer, and I loved the responses. Rather than try and summarize their thoughts, here’s what they told me.

Kevin starts it off:

“For me it really wasn’t a reality until I noticed that it was 25 years ago since we saw the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park. I pulled up YouTube, and I watched Unbridled win the Classic again. Then I watched the Distaff, and I literally felt this sick feeling all over again.

I was reminded of the fragility of horses, and just how tragic that day was. I hadn’t watched it since.

I watched the Sprint with Safely Kept beating Dayjur after he jumped the shadow of the grandstand, and again I was reminded with the loss of Mr. Nickerson and Shaker Knit.

I knew I needed to be there to witness the highest of the highs in this sport after witnessing the lowest point that was the 1990 Breeders’ Cup.

Though there were great races that day, too, I couldn’t help but recall most clearly the Sprint and the Distaff because of what racing lost that day.

I started thinking about going the week before. I wanted to see Keeneland, and what better time to see it then with the Breeders’ Cup. I didn’t even know they were retiring American Pharaoh. That was just the icing on the cake.

As soon as I get home, I am going to put that $2 win ticket on American Pharoah with my 2-5 straight exacta ticket from the 1990 Distaff, to remind me of how awesome the sport can be, and how big of a heart these animals have.

American Pharaoh winning the Classic in his last race showed the triumph of the equine spirit. For me this 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic is what makes it the Sport of Kings. Thoroughbred racing got a much needed boost this year. I don’t know how they will be able to top this Horse of the Year, but I am excited to watch it play out.

It was great getting to watch it with two of my favorite people. Here is to future plans of the Travers and hopefully another Breeders’ Cup somewhere down the road. Take care buddy.”

Rob brings it home:

“During my freshman year, I met lots of people, made lots of friends, and solidified very good friendships as well. Two friendships that became strong were Tom Law and Kevin Savard. Tom Law was my freshman-year roommate. Kevin Savard lived on our floor and we connected. After getting to know one another, the three of us formed quite a bond that would see us through the rest of the year.

Tom was from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which I quickly learned had something to do with horse racing. I knew nothing about horse racing, absolutely nothing. I did know that there was a big race every year called the Kentucky Derby. I had even seen it a couple of times I think. That was about the extent of my horse-racing knowledge. I knew I’d learn many things when I went away for school but I would have never predicted that I’d learn about an industry that brought three friends together during their freshman year of college and would continue to this Breeders’ Cup Day … 25 years later!

On October 25, six days before the Breeders Cup, I got a text from Kevin letting me know that Tom had two tickets for Saturday and that he was planning on making the trip down for the races. His last sentence asked if I could swing it? I dismissed it immediately because my birthday was Breeders’ Cup Day (Oct. 31) and I knew that my wife had made party plans for Friday night. Besides, I had never been away from my family for my birthday, it had always been a “family” kind of thing. As time went by, I couldn’t get myself to stop thinking about the possibility of making it work, however, and figured that I would casually mention it to Sharon. To my surprise, she told me that I needed to go … a chance to reconnect with friends, a chance to witness history, to do something I had never done (go to a Breeders’ Cup). She leaned over to give me a kiss and said “Happy Birthday.” Signed, sealed, delivered. I was on my way to Lexington.

When plans fell into place to meet Kevin and Tom for a reunion of sorts in Lexington for the Breeders’ Cup, I found myself romanticizing over memories of our college days. Tom taught me how to read the form, he taught me how to bet, how to analyze data, how to interpret odds and betting strategies all among other nuances of the sport. Kevin mentored me along the way as well. … I’m not sure if he had any background racing knowledge before we started going to the races or not but he was good at it, very good. During our freshman year together, the three of would spend countless hours honing our handicapping craft … we would visit the off-track betting facility in Whitehall. When classes were over for the day, we would drive 30 minutes or so to catch the races at the OTB.

The trip to Keeneland was everything I thought that it might have been and so much more. The track was beautiful, the electricity in the crowd was tangible, each race became more exciting than the next, culminating in the Classic. During the day Kevin and I had great fun analyzing and talking horses. Tom would come down from time to time to catch up with us (he was working after all) and weigh in with his thoughts on the day, I hung on every word.

Lastly, the culminating moment of the weekend was being together for the Classic. Tom came down to be with Kevin and I for the race … we snuck up to the club level to watch the race and as we witnessed American Pharaoh capture history, we celebrated, cheered, and high five’d each other like we had done many times before 25 years removed.

Thanks again for a great weekend, just what the doctor ordered!”

Well said gentlemen, well said.