Cup of Coffee: So Long Saratoga

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And then there was one. The last page in the last paper, I think I’ve been here before, trying to find the words for the long goodbye. 

It’s down to this, the pressure of one final deadline and the levity of one final deadline. Tomorrow, I’ll watch races but my voice recorder will be at home, I won’t scramble around trying to figure out where the winner’s watching the race, I’ll simply enjoy a race like everyone else. I’ll laugh at things people say, but I won’t wonder if I can print them. I’ll eat a real meal at a real table and go to bed when I want, instead of when the paper allows. That goes for Tom, Joe and the rest of The Special team who have brought you this year’s volume of work, our 16th loop on this crazy ride.

Chad Brown and Jose Ortiz racked up numbers on the front side as we racked up numbers on the dark side – 33 issues, 1,260 pages, 27,225 words (give or take) for this column alone. Arrogate wasn’t the only Travers record as we produced our biggest paper in history, a 72-page tome on Travers Day. And to think we produced eight-page editions when we started back in 2001. 

I like to wait until everything else is finished for this final column, a sense of closure, shutting the door on the vault and spinning the big knob, locking it away until next summer. And, yes, I could probably re-run any of the final columns from the first 15 years and we might not know the difference. I’m sure they all sound the same. 

I just wrote 1,188 words about the Woodward, starting with Kent Sweezey walking into the winner’s circle and finishing with Jimmy Jerkens’ career reclamation. Shaman Ghost came through, delivering a win for a trainer who is respected by his peers and appreciated by the purists.

Jerkens walked through the crowd after the Woodward, accepted congratulations from random fans to important owners, always gracious, he reminded me a little of his father walking out of the grandstand after Shine Again or Emma’s Encore. I guess that’s what I like the most about Saratoga and this crazy gig we’ve invented with The Special, just being there, sharing a moment with a trainer, a jockey, an owner, a fan or a horse, just playing a small role in something so big.

But, it’s not always big. 

Our Saturday started with the annual Little Guy Stable Tour, ferretting out the trainers who we hadn’t talked to all meet, I never knew how many barns were over on the harness side. There was Mike Shevy holding his horse for the blacksmith, there was Oscar Barrera III sitting in the corner of his barn, ready to talk about a filly who he loves, there was Arch Kingsley in the farthest corner (were we in Albany?), two jumpers ready to go home, no wins but pride intact. 

Shevy’s words, delivered quietly, but soulfully, echo in my ear.

“I’ve been in a slump, but you just try to remember when things were good, when I won a race here and The Saratoga Special interviewed me, your whole life turns around in two minutes. All of a sudden, this dream is real.”

In between the Little Guy Stable Tour and the Woodward, another day of Saratoga unfolded, the morning rhythm, the afternoon buzz and the last race rolling past, turf horses flashing through the fading light as revelers headed home and Billy Joel sang the finale one more time. We could use him in our office, signaling the end, the fading tune of another fading summer. 

As I re-read what I’ve written here, as I check the word count, as I bleed my way to the ending of a disjointed, stop-and-start column, I sense movement in the main office, just around the wall from mine, it means they’re finished writing and now they’re lurking, waiting, time ticking. That’s what it has felt for six weeks, time ticking, always ticking.

My 81-year-old father came to town this week, his annual late-meet visit. He’s the one who brought me here the first day, he and my mom, nurturing an infant and planting a seed. The seed of Saratoga. I was here when Secretariat lost in 1973 and most summers ever since, every summer since 1989. 

I didn’t get to watch as many races with Dad as I wanted. I didn’t get to eat as many meals with Dad as I wanted. 

He mentioned church tomorrow. I guess that’ll make up for missed races and meals, but probably not as entertaining. I’ll go to church with my dad and my sister, maybe my brother and my nephew. It’s been awhile for me. I’ll pray for peace, love, health and good fortune to return to Saratoga next summer, rested and rejuvenated, to do it all over again. 

Goodbye, readers. Goodbye, Saratoga.