Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cross-Country Notes From Tracktown, USA

HRI is delighted to have an old friend visit, however briefly

For a time, Saratoga was as close as eight furlongs away, and as far away as New Jersey, North Carolina and Washington D.C.

As the meet proceeds into its 149th season, it’s farther away than ever. And that sorta’ bums me out.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t think it ever would!

Despite the tweets, YouTube HD videos of every race, it could never replace putting on a pair of slacks, a button-down shirt, tie and blazer and rubbing shoulders in the paddock with Lukas, Rice, Zito, as if it were 2008 again, and this rookie named Chad Brown won the first race of that meet and be its leading trainer for the next 29 minutes.

Eight years later and he was the record holding winner of 40 races, supplanting Todd Pletcher in a Saratogian Game of Thrones.

But all this is in the recent past. I live in Eugene, Oregon, nicknamed Tracktown for Nike, renown for Steve Prefontaine and the Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Having lived in Saratoga Springs, that nickname makes me laugh now.

Saratoga has a way of infecting you with a kind of bug. In 2002, my good buddy Pete introduced me to the Spa. We obsessively visited the cute girl at Window 180, or thereabouts, just home from college with shiny brown hair, a fluorescent smile and a sexy aplomb for typing in bets—no misogyny intended.

I had never been to anything greater than a greyhound race up until then, but something fundamentally changed in my DNA after seeing the horses come off the far turn as I leaned into the fence at the top of the stretch.

There’s a turkey vulture at the Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene which must have been imprinted by humans while it was young. It actually thinks it is human, not fowl. That’s what happened to me at the top of the stretch that August day at the Spa when cold beer turns lukewarm in about 1:01 and change.

Whenever I took a rookie to Saratoga I walked them over to the top of the stretch and allowed their senses take over:

Hear the rumble. Here, they rumble.
Feel the vibration of the hooves.
See the crystalline image of a stampede in full drive.
Smell the sweat as they walk back up the homestretch to their cozy shedrows after giving it the old college try.
Taste the blood from your cheeks because you hadn’t even known you were chewing as you listened to the horses blowing Category 5 air out their nostrils.

That kid who saw his first horse race in 2002 would, six years later, be covering the meet for The Saratogian, the hometown newspaper. When Commentator won the Whitney, Nicholas P. Zito planted an Italian kiss on that kid’s cheek just outside the winner’s circle.

What a gift; to have access to the backstretches where the real work gets done. What a gift watching them all at work: the horses, the trainers, the riders, the grooms.

But then I had to run my mouth. I was mad the paper that wouldn’t let me cover the 2009 Triple Crown. I called them cheap and the Publisher didn’t like that. The Publisher fired me. I paid the price for looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Two employed reporters and a recently unemployed one on food-stamps were on the backside one morning when the Preakness winner had one of her first Saratoga breezes.

You know her; went by the name of Rachel Alexandra.

Those three notebook-toting guys would grow 10, 20 or 30-fold after she won the Haskell Invitational one Sunday at The Shore and the drama was starting to build: Where would the filly run next, and against whom?

I was there for all of it, 10 to 12 hours a day at Saratoga Race Course, following all those people around. The amorous Zito; then President Charlie Hayward. Calvin Borel. And Rachel.

What a gift that was.

But when you spend that much time doing any one thing, you’re bound to flame out.

I knew this was a magical place but I couldn’t see that anymore.

In fact, shortly thereafter, I couldn’t go near the place. Add to that that I hated—and still hate—a sport in which its athletes can routinely suffer an injury and die.

Sad, too, because it heard it over and over again: “That’s part of the game.” And so my hatred became justified to me: I hated the game while increasingly loving the player, an animal of such athletic liquidity and heart.

I took family to the top of the stretch, to that magical spot on the rail when a Ken McPeek-trained filly, Charming Hour, stepped wrong and broke her front leg that now was flapping in the wind.

Dirty and bloodied, she hobbled over to the outside fence. She was just a baby, two years old. Just beginning and now just ending. Kids were crying. Adults were crying; my stomach doing backflips. The screens came out. That’s part of the game, too, they said.

I grew increasingly resentful of the sport. Wrote about it only for the money, and not much money at that. How much is money worth anyway when a part of you dies?

I watched American Pharoah win the Triple Crown from an apartment in New Jersey. It dropped me to my knees. I can feel the chills up my back right now. It was akin to falling in love again.

A year later, 2016, Pete, my ol’ buddy who brought me to the track in 2002 but now is married with two kids going on three, a friend I barely see and almost never talk with but who set up the annual trip to Saratoga

We sit there with his brother, another friend, surrounding a cooler full of dark rum, ginger beer, lime wedges, G2 Gatorade and Miller Lite, past performances strewn all over the place like the bottom of some bird cage. I handicap, I don’t play, but I like this.

Now suddenly I had a job interview. I texted Pete, said I couldn’t make it. I was partly relieved, a guilt-ridden relief. I didn’t feel like driving five hours to a place where my feelings are so mixed, even if it meant not seeing my pal of 25 years.

Pete wrote back: “Well, I miss my old buddy B.O. I was really excited for this trip and now it’s shot.”

That felt like crap, compost-toilet crap. So I made a call and moved the interview.

“You old dog. Very glad to hear it,” Pete wrote back.

And so I made the drive and went to the track that hugs you like some mom.

We watched on flat-screens now, from the finish line. We watch from the top of the stretch, cold-turning-warm beers in our hands. We lean back, look at the grandstands. We smell the brats wafting in the air, french fries, too.

And then we see the tops of people’s heads, buried in past performances. Time for a toast, using more words than ever should be necessary.

And then it hit me: Saratoga never was about the horses, the athletes, the gambling, the food.

No matter where you are in the country, whether it’s by a paddock, the top of some homestretch, Section X on the track apron, placing Pick 3s with the cute girl--even if there’s no line at a neighboring window--just to see her smile. Because Saratoga is about home.

At no time is that more apparent than now, 2,930 miles away, two Tracktowns separated by the expanse of an entire country. It's the real Tracktown, home, that I'm missing now.

Brendan O'Meara
Author, "Six Weeks in Saratoga:
Host of the #CNF podcast: subscribe!
Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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