Book Club

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Boyd Browning Jr. looked at The Saratoga Special display case in the front of the old feed store on East Avenue and smiled at the copy of Recollections of a Life with Horses, by Humphrey S. Finney.

Fasig-Tipton’s president reads the book from time to time, just as a refresher, just as a reminder of Finney, the man they named the pavilion for and for whom we owe pretty much everything that happens in the next two days.

The book, given to me by my mother a few Christmases ago, rides to Saratoga every summer. Just seems like it should.

Open it up and skim it, you can see why Browning reads it.

At eighteen I looked to the future with a feeling of pleasant anticipation and confidence. And why wouldn’t I? My purse contained the American equivalent of 46 guineas, and a position with horses awaited me in Michigan, a place a few shires away from Manhattan. Also, I had been told that in this land of promise a man could rub a horse or act as chambermaid to one without being marked as a third-class citizen. And in many respects it seemed that my life to that point had been lived in anticipation of this opportunity – to spend full time with horses.

For the man who is forced to pursue an occupation that is distasteful to him, I have a feeling of great pity. In the turf world, I can’t recall ever having met anyone who didn’t like what he was doing. He might not like the person for whom he was doing it, but the work itself was his thing,” as some of our young folk put it. Whether it is tidying up the bed-chamber of a horse on the backstretch, or cheering for a homebred Derby winner, or watching a yearling sell for a better-than-predicted price, horsefolk always seem to be immensely interested in what they’re doing. Few would swap places with anyone else, though they might be delighted to swap some of their horses.

I am very proud that my associates saw fit to give it my name. It’s a pretty big thing to have your name on a building.

We who conduct the sales invade the field of histrionics, in our not-completely-subtle way. We ham it up a little. We enjoy getting laughs and contriving to pit one buyer against another, and many of the attitudes and artifices of the stage are used to cajole the customers and keep them in a generous frame of mind. Even the spotters, who stand in the aisles and look for buying signals that might be missed by the auctioneer and announcer, have their moments. The beckoning gesture, the shrug and the naively hopeful look are used, along with a wide repertoire of facial expressions that range from open admiration to unadulterated contempt. These devices are used also by the announcer and the auctioneer, but with finer nuances. Every sale is a new show.

One of the finest things that ever has happened to mankind is Saratoga.

After a man has been looking at horses for more than a half a century, and studying them and watching them develop, certain ones always will stand out in memory. They surprise you, disappoint you and thrill you, and make you wonder why they succeeded or failed.

Long ago, I discovered that listening to great horsemen is a means to a better education in the field. I never have stopped learning, and I treasure the bull sessions I have had with people attached to racing and Thoroughbred breeding.

There is something about the horse that establishes a fraternity among men. For one thing, there’s no problem about a topic of conversation. The word horse” starts it and it goes on and on and on. It’s the same in every stratum of the horse world – in the barns and the manor houses, and on the racetracks. Traveling all over America and in other lands, I have met thousands of people and made lasting friendships that I consider my richest treasures. Some of the friends have passed on, others are still around, and many will outlast me.

One of the lovely qualities of the horse business is its annual regeneration: next spring is a new foal crop, perhaps with its Man o’ War or Secretariat; next summer is a new draft of sales yearlings. Each year it’s pleasant to get back to the old places, like Saratoga and Newmarket, for they combine recollections of times past with the bustle of tomorrow’s history in the making. But at the same time, if I don’t get back, I hope I have a right to feel that I’ve given as much to these old places as they’ve given to me – that it’s been a fair exchange. 

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