SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 24, 2013—
Nana Handicapping at the Spa
Photo by Linda Pricci
Nana Handicapping at the Spa

On the racetrack, surprises are as common as sand and loam, but I’ve never experienced a Saratoga season that ever began like this one: Nana died on opening day.

Toni and Cathie’s mother was 97-years-old so, yes, she did have a rich, full life worth celebrating but the fabric that stitched a family together is gone. Never, however, will it ever be in danger of being forgotten.

Aida Bresha, nee Codraro, a.k.a. Nana, was born in the small town of Milazzo, Sicily. Loving and strong-willed, she never forgot she was a lady, but one with a devilish sense of humor.

And so it wasn’t surprising for her to insist that on the day she is interred the family goes out and makes a party.

You bet, Nana.

For all her old school ways, Aida knew how to have fun and, aside from time spent with granddaughters Jennifer and Linda, she never had more fun than when she was gambling. To me, she was Action Nana.

Aida’s gambling came in different forms and she enjoyed them all, whether it was accompanying her family to the racetrack or often as the lone female member of the Codraro clan at the poker table after the Christmas dishes were cleared away.

In 2011, her granddaughters made the drive north from Gotham and the Jersey Shore for her 95th birthday. Her actual birth date was in September, after the track season ended, and that wouldn’t do. She wanted to celebrate on the porch at Saratoga Race Course.

So all of us, including my brother-in-law Oscar, Nana’s “other son,” gathered at a table on the third floor of the clubhouse for a betting brunch. I’m not sure any family member made a score that Sunday afternoon but it was a day Nana always remembered.

Tom Durkin walked over between race calls to wish her buon compleanno. Her favorite jockey, Richard Migliore, also came by to do the same. She liked to tease him: “Your name is pronounced ‘mill-ee-or-ee’,” she would say.

Good-natured Sam the Bugler came by the table and played a few verses of “Happy Birthday,” and Nana was very pleased that Jason Blewitt and Andy Serling interrupted their analysis of the day’s seventh race to “wish Nana a Happy 95th.”
Grace Hall -- Sharp break, sharper finish
Photo by Linda Pricci
That's What I'm Talking About

I was especially proud to be a racetracker that day.

Nana honed her handicapping skills when she accompanied the family to Saratoga every summer. The deal was that I get her clubhouse reserved seats and drive her to the track each day in return for putting the kids to bed every night.

Saratoga is, after all, a summer camp for adults or as Paul Moran often likes to call it, “twisted Mayberry.”

Downstate the routine was similar. Whenever Toni and I needed to get away, Aida was always Nana on the Spot. She’d jump into her Toyota and drive to Syosset from her home in Kings Point. The girls handed us our hats on the way out the door.

But Nana just didn’t take care of the girls; she took care of the adults, too. One weekend in October, after trekking to Grantville, Pa. for Penn National’s World Series of Handicapping, we came home to find our laundry neatly folded on the bed.

“Mom, I put in a wash last night so you wouldn’t have to do this,” Toni said. “Yeah, I know, there were only a few pieces in the hamper so I stripped the beds and made a wash.” She was always doing things like that; she was incorrigibly helpful.

Toni and I moved from Long Island to Saratoga a dozen years ago and it wasn’t long afterward that Nana drove up for an extensive visit, about three months. In those days, “The Sopranos” was appointment-TV every Sunday night at nine.

One Sunday there was an especially graphic episode that knew no video and audio boundaries. All the poles at the Bada Bing were occupied by 'dancers'--“that’s disgusting, I wonder if their mothers know what they are doing?” The episode was quite violent, as well.

As was often the case, this episode’s language was extremely course and unrelenting in its delivery. Nana, ever the proper lady, said nothing.

Finally, when the program ended, she rose slowly from her easy chair, walked towards the downstairs bathroom and said. “I think I’ll brush my f**kin’ teeth and go to f**kin’ bed.”

Toni and I were stunned, but only for a moment. A minute later our sides cramped up from laughing, tears rolling down our cheeks.

The crying this weekend was of a different nature but that didn’t last long, either. There were just so many recollections from Nana’s family including Dawn, her “third daughter,” that it wasn’t long before sobbing turned into smiles.

There’s some symmetry to the fact that Nana’s time on earth ended just as the celebration of 150 years of horse racing in Saratoga was beginning.

Aida made a life in places named Hoboken, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, Long Island again, and, finally, in the land of history, health and horses.

She began her journey in Milazzo on 911, albeit 97 years ago, became a United States citizen in 1927, on December 7, and passed on Saratoga’s Opening Day, 2013. That's quite the trifecta: Action Nana, moving like a winner.