Thursday, July 17, 2014
History, Health, Horses…and Humanity
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 17, 2014—“History, health, and horses,” the sign promises, as you approach downtown Saratoga Springs from South Broadway.
The Battle of Saratoga, historians will inform you, was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.
At last, the British forces had been captured, New England no longer was isolated, and there would be no aggression coming south out of Canada.
The French then took this opportunity to join the fray, wisely choosing the home team, and young America was on its way.
Long before Native Americans were casino entrepreneurs, they lived off the land and the local Mohawks drank and bathed in the mineral waters here, believing in its restorative and curative properties.
They called it Serachtuague, or “place of fast moving waters.” After settlers arrived, new worlders started calling it Saratoga. George Washington even tried to buy one of the springs here.
On Friday, the race course on Union Avenue will open its gates and conduct a thoroughbred meeting for the 146th time. Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell gambled here.
That completes the Spa trifecta.
People get older but racing in Saratoga never gets old. Horses love the place; they thrive here, physically and mentally. The atmosphere lends itself very well to their life as racehorses.
In Saratoga, crafting stories is not so much a job as it is a privilege. But personal history discomfits me this season, dear diary, my original and faithful companion of 37 years.
Maybe it’s because for the first time in nearly three decades, when I take my place in the press box, Paul Moran will not be sitting alongside.
Three years ago, we were there together, flanked on our right by Ed Fountaine and John DaSilva. But the New York Post, of all newspapers, doesn’t care that much about racing anymore. They are missed, no matter who sits there.
Lining the back wall about 30 feet away is an area where Joe Hirsch once worked. No one has dared to fill that space, some years not even on Travers day when space in this quaint, rickety observatory is at a premium.
In other years passed, I’d look to my right and see Rick Lang, and Jack Kelly, younger than I and also no longer with us. Others have gone, too, via retirement or attrition.
I have no idea what opening day will be like this time; I am haunted by history.
This world extends beyond the front-side. I began thinking about this after Pat Kelly saddled a winner for the estate of Thomas T. Kelly on closing Saturday at Belmont Park.
Lasix, blinkers and a bug boy, coming from last at 21-1, losing all the ground, finishing on the wrong lead, and up by a neck—much the best! That’s what condition will do for a 4-year-old race horse vs. 3-year-olds. Real old school stuff and, hopefully, somewhere “Pop” was cashing.
A.k.a. “Turnpike Tom,” Hall of Famer TJ Kelly will be among the missing on the backside, just like he was last year. No one knows who will be cutting the carrots for the feed this time.
“The Chief,” meanwhile, thankfully is still with us, but he’s Florida-based now.
I will not forget a Saratoga morning a decade ago when a reporter eavesdropped on both, listening to stories about the great horses they trained, their idiosyncratic owners, and their rapscallion handlers.
And, a year later, I’m still in denial over the passing of Cary Fotias, a loving, brilliant man and cherished friend for whom there will be a memorial service here on the Monday of Travers week, just as there will be one for Paulie this Sunday.
There will be no more bias updates and “whispers” from me to report, no more last minute price plays from Cary, whose legacy includes a hundred close friends he left behind, leaving a void that can never be filled, truly.
Oh how Cary loved this place, not only for the great gambling but for the fact that his childhood friend, Kit, would give him a blow for a week from crafting his beloved Equiform figures, the greatest handicapping tool I have known.
As he did not believe that his energy figures could be automated, Kit was the one man Cary trusted to get the variant just right because numbers making was always more art than science.
The automated, imitation version that’s out there now would be precise about 70% of the time, according to Cary’s close friend and fellow figure maker, European expert Nick Mordin. More cause for moving on.
But I know the original Equiform would have helped immensely to make sense of Saturday’s Diana, a 9-furlong Grade 1 for fillies and mares on the turf in which at least six of the 10 entrants truly have a big shot.
But Cary, and perhaps as many as 30,000 others, will have enjoyed trying to divine its winner, just as they will tomorrow when the Schuylerville kicks things off.
Buoyed by an overnighter for 3-year-olds on the turf and a rare appearance by a legendary European rider, Frankie Dettori, with a little help from trainer Wesley Ward, will be looking to make a flying dismount at least a few times on opening weekend.
It’s an unhappy reality that many good friends and family will miss the opening of Saratoga 146. And I’m a little sorry for myself, as the old Spa, for all its history, never again will be quite the same, will it Nana?