For the past four decades, through tough winters, I’ve always had one immutable event that got me through – dreaming of summer at Saratoga – the cool breezes sweeping across the broad, white porch at Anne’s Washington Inn and a crisp Daily Racing Form filled with all the promise of a profitable afternoon at The Spa. Joe Bokan, proprietor, would deliver the fresh coffee with a smile nearly as wide as the porch. It wasn’t hard to find winners, even when you lost. In Saratoga, you needn’t keep score with a calculator. Just to being there was enough. This year, of course is different.
At first, news that NYRA might hold races without spectators in 2020 was heartbreaking. Aside from seeing all the fresh, young racehorses working out every morning while Barbara Livingston immortalized them long before their time, we would miss the fundraisers that Joanne Pepper and the terrific people at Old Friends at Cabin Creek hold every year. We would miss all the friends that made the Inn like a summer camp for horse lovers. Bobby Arcaro, Eddie’s son, and a longtime supporter of Old Friends won’t be there. Charlie Palumbo, who buried both my parents in St. Patrick’s cemetery in Enfield, CT, won’t be there. The Colonels from Philadelphia, with their cooler filled with beer, won’t be sitting in their usual spot by the paddock. Lew Kobel won’t have a line outside his door near the racing secretary’s office with people (myself included) begging for backstretch credentials. Saratoga will be missing so much.
However, like most horseplayers who are accustomed to bad news, I’ve learned to look on the bright side of life, even if, sometimes, it’s hard to find. Diane and I are still planning to go to Saratoga whether they want us there or not. The traffic will be lighter. The gas cheaper. And we’ll get our luxurious accommodations in Anne’s Washington Inn…the Little Silver Charm room, please.
Look at it this way. If there’s any place that needs social distancing it’s Saratoga in August. Whether it’s trying to get into Druthers for a brew on Broadway or, later, trying to find a seat for Andy Serling’s show at The Parting Glass, the shoving and pushing and bumping is worse than anything Angel Cordero, Jr. ever did on the track. I’d miss the lobster rolls and fried clams and pictures of the great Thoroughbred, Chowda, on the wall at Eddie F’s Eatery. And try getting a spot at any restaurant where the answer, invariably, is “Two? We can seat you at 9:30.”
The more I thought about the possibility of population control, the more I liked it. While I hate wagering on my computer or phone through my ADW account, it may be a fair trade-off since I won’t have to put up with bettors that should be DQ’d for their offensive behavior at the mutuel windows. I don’t need some hardened down-stater screaming about getting shut out while a well-meaning tourist fumbles through their wallet looking for $2 in exact change. And very few people get to watch the races anyway. If you don’t have a reserved seat or a box, you end up watching it on an old TV hanging in a tree. And you won’t be charged admission or $10 for a beer. More money for the investment portfolio.
So, here’s the plan. We’re going to select two weekends at Saratoga where the usual suspects can gather on the lawn at the Inn and bet. We’ll get some jockeys and trainers and astute professional handicappers to show up for the celebrity angle to talk up the great history of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga. We’ll take a trip out to Cabin Creek to see Zippy Chippy, Will’s Way, Commentator, and all the other great retirees. We’ll eat at a decent hour at Mama Mia’s, and get ready for the next day of racing. And, if anyone gets really nostalgic, we’ll hang a TV from a tree.
Let’s put it this way. Horse racing must be the greatest sport in history because it survives itself. And it’s about to do it again.
Michael Blowen is the Founder and President of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement in Georgetown, KY, a home for race horses ranging from Silver Charm and Touch Gold to claimers, Summer Attraction and Archie’s Echo. Like the horses, he’s also retired - from a career as an arts writer for The Boston Globe. Check out oldfriendsequine.org for updates.