Absent Friends

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To four men, a newspaper company, lives well lived and people reached by all.

Ray Swift was a fan from way back. He’d occupy a picnic spot on one of the islands between the jocks’ room and the racing office at Saratoga Race Course. Early in the day, he’d wave and offer a smile, say something about that morning’s paper. Later, he’d spy me walking past with an interview subject and nod. He’d never interrupt, but he’d let me know he was there. He had a crazy theory that when trainer Todd Wyatt wore “the green sport coat” to the paddock, his horse was going to run huge. I tried to tell Ray that Todd didn’t have that many sport coats. Ray said he had a friend who owned a hotel at the base of Mount Snow in Vermont, told me to let him know if we ever wanted to go, said he could get us a discount. We booked a couple rooms, took the boys skiing one winter. I’m not sure there was a discount, but I did have a great conversation at the bar with Ray and his friend about racing. Saying we looked a little wrung out and in need of vitamins, Ray showed up at our office with fresh vegetables from his garden. He was right, and the gesture was much appreciated even if tomatoes aren’t exactly desk food. He followed up with baked goods, and a wildly appreciated platter of chicken parm from Augie’s.

Ernie Moulos was definitely the first resident of Kansas to read Steeplechase Times, the newspaper we published from 1994-2012. He and his wife Kay watched the Saratoga jump races, via simulcast at Wichita Greyhound Park. Really. I remember getting a letter, probably a letter given the time, from him explaining how it all happened. They were big fans, subscribed to the paper, made a trip to Fair Hill for a tour and the races one spring (Ernie wore a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra hat promoting the 2010 Apple Blossom matchup that never happened). He said he bought it at a big discount. Ernie and Kay played our Pick Six steeplechase fantasy stable game like it mattered, and were perennial contenders. They also became advertisers, with an eighth-page promoting a gourmet coffee and tea business. The idea was you could order coffee and tea from them, in Kansas, and they’d ship it to you. I remember thinking the idea would never work. Who would buy coffee and tea via the mail? Little did I know.

Randy Johnson introduced himself to me with a bellow from across the first floor of the Saratoga Race Course grandstand – “The Big Unit loves The Special” he hollered. Stacking papers in a rack, I half-cringed at what was coming next, only to be met by a smiling, laughing, back-slapping guy carrying a folding chair and a small cooler. Randy was something of a Saratoga legend. To me, he was just a fan of the paper. Pretty much every day, I saw him – at the track in the morning, at the track in the afternoon, walking to or from the track. “The Big Unit loves The Special” came out of his mouth most times. Yes, he referred to himself in the third person – sort of – but he wasn’t bragging or showing off or even trying to act like his namesake the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher.

Joe Curtin I only met once, but he was a fan of The Special. One day in 2018, he timed his visit to the paper box outside our office on East Avenue just right. I was doing something out front and handed Joe that day’s copy. He called it “better than betting,” introduced himself, said he’d be by the same time the next day were I so inclined to offer personal delivery service once again. I stuck his comments in the next day’s Here and There section – giving him a summer of bragging rights among his racetrack buddies.

Other than a love for horse racing, and the luck (?) to come across our newspapers, the four men had nothing in common. Until now. They all died in the last year or so. They left behind families, friends, co-workers, students, acquaintances and . . . apparently, me.

Last summer at Saratoga I realized I hadn’t seen Ray at the races, not even once. He hadn’t stopped by the office with vegetables. I hadn’t gotten an email or a call. He didn’t join the Readers Club (which was made for him). Where was Ray? For some reason, I Googled him and found his obituary. He died in May. He was 60. He’d had a long career in sales (made sense), most recently for the Shoremaster boat dock and accessories company. He was survived by his wife Eleanor, two children, two brothers and a sister. And a raft of memories at Saratoga Race Course, which got a mention in his obit.

A few weeks ago, Kay Moulos called our office to order some Thoroughbred Racing Calendars. Ernie typically made the annual purchase and if he got me on the phone we’d catch up. Kay said Ernie died a few days earlier (Dec. 8). He was 74. For years, he’d battled ALS. I never knew. Kay said she was “so glad Ernie took me to Fair Hill” and that they made all the other journeys to see Thoroughbreds race. A Wichita native, Ernie was an attorney and a big fan of the Cleveland Browns (they owe him). I doubled the calendar order and included a note saying Ernie asked me to. A few days later I got a package of gourmet coffee and tea in the mail.

In late December, I got a text message from Tom Law with a screen shot of four texts from his phone. “Hey boys, I’ve got some sad news to share with you,” the first one started. Randy apparently collapsed at home, and died. He was 63 (I would have guessed much younger), married to Cheryl for 40 years, had a master’s degree in education, taught biology at Saratoga High for 33 years before retiring in 2012. He also coached Tom, and scores of others, in track. Randy’s obituary is fantastic. We should all be so lucky. In addition to Cheryl, he was survived by their daughter Chynna, his parents, a brother and three sisters. Tom told me an old story about the time Saratoga clinched the Suburban Council league championship with a 1-2-3 finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. At school that week, Coach Johnson – some guys just called him “J” – ordered lunch. And that’s how Jeremy Briell, Dave Burns and Tom Law ate pizza and drank soda from beakers (since there were no cups) in Randy Johnson’s biology classroom. There’s a memorial service for Randy, “J,” The Big Unit in April. I’m sure it will be a blast.

On Jan. 11, I received an email with the subject line “Joe Curtin – Saratoga Springs.” It started like this: My father was a big fan of you and your writings. Regrettably, he passed away in March of 2019 and his death was quickly followed by mom’s last month. While cleaning out the house in Saratoga, the Curtins found a letter to me from Joe Curtin Sr. It was dated Oct. 2, 2018. He remembered the roadside exchange we’d had and how mention in The Special had elevated his status among his racetrack friends. He wrote that he looked forward to the 2019 racing season “with great enjoyment” and signed the note, “Best wishes and thanks for the unexpected fame.” The hand-written letter never got to me, probably because Joe sent it to our Saratoga office (which we vacate every year). Joe Curtin’s son Joe made sure I got it – via an email attachment – a year and three months after it was mailed. He wrote that his father “would love that I was the last carrier to get this to you.” Me too. The elder Curtin was 77 when he died after two battles with cancer. The Massachusetts native worked for Moore Business Forms in Providence, spent 10 years in the alumni office of his alma mater St. Michael’s College in Vermont and was later the vice president and interim president at Russell Sage College in Troy. He closed his career as the president of the Independent College Fund of New York in Albany. Survivors included his wife Amelia, five children and 11 grandchildren.

As far as I know, Ray, Ernie, Randy and Joe never met – though I’d like to think they somehow crossed paths at one of our paper racks and told stories about how they first came across The Saratoga Special.

Thanks for reading, guys. You’ll be missed.