I canâ€™t believe it was 50 years ago. But this is the summer for Saratoga milestone anniversaries. It was the summer I turned 18, the legal age to bet and then, not insignificantly, to drink. I was still living in New York City.
People didnâ€™t talk about bucket lists then. But after hearing wild tales about how Lake George in the summer was the northern version of Fort Lauderdale for spring break, going there for a weekend as soon as I was old enough was atop my â€śto doâ€ť list.
A couple of friends, George and John, were down for it as much as I was. I had gotten hooked on the horses, very modestly, a couple of years before. â€śAs long as we were heading upstate,â€ť I cajoled, â€śwhy donâ€™t we stop at Saratoga? I hear itâ€™s a really cool place.â€ť
So we took the NY Central on a Friday morning and got off at Saratoga, about 30 miles from our ultimate weekend destination. We pooled some money, about $10 apiece and promised we would bet only a couple of bucks a race. The only gimmick then was an early daily double.
Four races in, our cache was down to $15 and we were getting discouraged enough to ponder an early exit. Maybe Saratoga wasn't such a great idea.
I was the supposed expert so I suggested making a win bet on a 25-to-1 two-year-old first-time starter named Bugler. I couldnâ€™t understand the price because he was a Darby Dan colt, trained by Jimmy Conway and ridden by Braulio Baeza, at the time a triple crown of top connections. (The reason was there was a hot firster sent off at 3-5. I think his name was Jacinto.) George went to make the bet.
This was the thrill of our young lifetimes right from the start. Bugler bounced out to the lead. By the time he passed us at the Top of the Stretch, he had about six, and he didnâ€™t give up an inch of it to the wire. It wasnâ€™t until they put up his number that a laughing-like-a-banshee George revealed he had bet the whole $15, $5 across the board. His logic was, if we lost, we would get an early start on Lake George.
We collected $196. This has to be put in perspective. It was about double what my father made for a six-day week at his newstand. The three of us combined left home with little more than half that for the weekend. (Our motel was paid in advance, as was our train fare.) Beers at the bars we hit in Lake George were only 50 cents, drinks a buck, and you could eat well for less than $10 a day. Suddenly we were flush enough to party like rock stars.
Screw the economy bus ride to Lake George. We found a limo for $5 apiece. We bar hopped with abandon. We called cabs for ridiculously short rides. The only bummer was we didnâ€™t hook up with anyone. Didnâ€™t even get a name or phone number.
(Just as well. Two weeks later, I had a blind date that started on the boardwalk in Rockaway and hasnâ€™t ended yet. Pat and I will celebrate our 47th wedding anniversary in the fall. What was the line from the movie, â€śIn every boyâ€™s life there is a summer of â€™42.â€ť Mine was the summer of â€™63.)
Saratoga was supposed to be merely a pit stop on Friday afternoon en route to Lake George. But there was no question where the three of us were heading on Saturdayâ€”and, as it turned out, Monday. Sunday racing wasnâ€™t legal or we would have been there then, too.
We didnâ€™t have any other big scores but we had enough winners that we were still flush enough to deep-six the train home for the first plane ride for each of us, from Albany to LaGuardia on Mohawk Airlines. Thanks to Bugler, it became the weekend of our young lives.
Iâ€™ve made the pilgrimage to Saratoga in 48 of the 50 years since. At one point I had a streak of 35 straight Travers. Pat has been at my side on all of those trips. The tradition endured even after we moved to Florida in 1972. Every August we packed the car, loaded the kids and headed 1,500 miles north to the Adirondacks.
We started taking my younger brother Greg with us as soon as he could appreciate it. He was standing alongside me for another memorable Spa moment. We were by the rail in mid-stretch one weekday afternoon in 1977 when a two-year-old (we didnâ€™t have) flashed by. â€śIâ€™ve never seen a horse run that fast,â€ť I said to my brother. That colt was Affirmed. I still haven't seen a horse run that fast.
Eventually our younger sister, Leslie, came along, too. Our tales of the joys of Saratoga eventually convinced my parents to check it out. My father isnâ€™t with us anymore but my mother, now 88, hasnâ€™t missed a year at the Spa in I canâ€™t tell you how long. Sheâ€™ll be there again at the Top of the Stretch next weekend and probably a couple more weekends before the end of the meet. She picks her own horses, too.
Unfortunately, we all didnâ€™t make it at the same time every year. However, season before last, we planned to all be there together: Pat and I, our son and daughter and their spouses and children; Greg, his wife Patti and their three grown children; Leslie, her spouse John and their three daughters and their boyfriends. There were about 25 of us, total.
Race tracks have never come to appreciate that their No. 1 marketing tool is horse players. Iâ€™ll bet a vast majority of fans broke their racetrack maidens when a friend brought them along. I know that most of the extended Jicha clan would never have made it to the Spa if I hadn't broken the ice with them. But they've all become Saratoga regulars and race fans year round.
My niece Hayley, a marketing major at the University of Miami, had T-shirts made up with neon lettering, â€śJicha Family Reunion 2011.â€ť There were so many of us wearing the shirts walking around the track, we began to attract attention. Sam the Bugler (thereâ€™s that word again) was the first to notice. He came to the Top of the Stretch to visit and serenade us. He came back the next day, too.
Word got to Channel 10 in Albany. Its crew, there to cover the races, found us and did a feature on us. It was about a three-minute piece on the air. Itâ€™s a tape weâ€™ll all cherish as our lives go our separate ways.
Weâ€™ll be out in force again this season, ready to start a second half-century of memories.
I donâ€™t know if any of this would have happened if it wasnâ€™t for a colt named Bugler.