53 and Counting

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I love the emails. The tips, the touts, the rants, the “I’ve got an idea for you…” notes that come across my screen. Once in a while they are mean-spirited, but most are good-natured, a suggestion, a thought, a story, a shared laugh, a shared anecdote. I received one from Kate and Jeff Harris about a decade ago, hell, maybe longer, about a woman who had been coming to Saratoga since the 60s. I jumped on it and met her. It filled a page.

I got another email last week, this one, from Jim Schaefer, a retired Ph.D who works mutuel window 1526. It was about a woman who had been coming to Saratoga since the 60s, he included a scanned copy of her hand-written letter about her upcoming trip to Saratoga.

I met Bea Strauss for the second time last weekend.

“How did you know I was here?” Strauss asked, while sitting in her “Cadillac” walker given to her by Schaefer and friends. “I met you years and years ago, I have the article you wrote about me. Kate Harris isn’t here, Jeff died a few years ago…but I’m here.”

Yes, Bea Strauss was at Saratoga for her 53rd season at Saratoga. Her trip was short, just four days, as she’s taking a cruise with two cousins through the inside passage of Alaska September 3.

“I’ve been wanting to do it since Alaska became a state,” Strauss said. “I’m going to be 92 years old in November, I figured I’d better do it.”

Strauss has been doing Saratoga since her mother suggested she make the trip.

“My mother had just gotten married to my stepfather and he said, ‘Come on, we’re going to Saratoga.’ She said, ‘What do I want with a racetrack?’ She went for the weekend,” Strauss said. “She came home and said, ‘You’ve got to try this.’ I said, ‘What do I want with a racetrack?’ She said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to try it, it’s fun.’ That was it, I was hooked, it’s been 53 consecutive years.”

Everybody has their reasons for their summer jaunts to Saratoga – work, play, family, tradition, gambling, horses…Strauss can’t really explain hers. It started as a weekend thing, then a month-long vacation from her nursing job, grew into an escape from her stressful days at the foster and childcare agency at the New York Archdiocese. She worked as an usher for a few summers, but mostly just enjoyed the ambiance, the soul of Saratoga.

“This was my salvation,” Strauss said. “I like the people I’ve spoken to, the beauty of the track, the fact that it’s totally different from anything else I’ve done, mostly just the people, not just the ardent bettors but the decent people who you can talk to, who are happy to share their experience with you, you’re watching the most beautiful animals, beautiful scenery, nice people, it’s a special place to be.”

Saratoga has provided a salvation to all of us. Strauss isn’t necessarily a racing fan, she’s a Saratoga fan. She went to Belmont Park once, called it, “nice” but never went back. At Saratoga, she’s a regular, making friends with Jim and Ron at the betting windows, who know her bet like they know their telephone number.

“My second year here, 1966, I bought a ticket for the second race, on the floor was a ticket for race two, $10 bet on the seven to win and a $10 exacta seven and eight. I stood there like this (she holds up her arm and waves it), waiting for someone to come say they dropped it, no one came,” Strauss said. “I took it back to the seat. My stepfather was very conservative, he would have bet Angel Cordero to show, he said, ‘Throw it away,’ I said, ‘Let’s wait.’ The seven came in first, the eight finished second, I collected $523. In 1966, $523 was a lot of money. So every second race if there’s a seven and eight, I bet it. And a few other races if there is a seven and eight. I don’t care if they have five legs or six heads, I still bet seven and eight.”

If she forgets, Jim and Ron make the bets for her. On a quiet Sunday – the calm before the Travers storm, Strauss sat and watched the races, greeting old friends and welcoming new friends, unclipping a knitted bookmark worm and handing it to a friend for his son and trying to explain the Saratoga mystique, as if it needed to be explained.

“It’s been a rich experience. The whole thing has been a rich experience,” Strauss said. “The fact that you and Kate and Jeff had a conversation about me and you wrote about me, where else does that happen? I have the article at home, my family said, ‘How do they know about you? There’s 40,000 people and they write about you. Why do they write about you?’ I said, ‘just because, just because, it’s Saratoga.’ ”

Yes, Bea, just because, just because, it’s Saratoga.

• Click here to read the entire Saratoga Special.