SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 5, 2017—This was supposed to be a whimsical piece about how great it is to return home to Saratoga.

And having lived here for 13 years before calling South Florida home, it would have been more than just a racing tale.

Because I am, and always will be, a New Yorker, who happens to be living in Florida now.

But recent events appear to be much more serious, whimsy inappropriate. In short, it was a matter of life and death: Mine.

Fortunately for me or, as Mark Twain famously said, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” For the moment, anyway.

One of the great things about returning to any place you once called home is seeing old friends in places where all racetrackers, practiced in the art of spouting the wisdom of John Nerud, reside from time to time.

“There are three stages in life,” Nerud once explained to NYRA’s Tony Johnson. “There’s youth, middle age, and ‘you look good’!”

Irony, of course, often has to do with amazing coincidence. Before seeing an old press box friend on Whitney morning, I had driven into town Friday night, was making a left onto Broadway, and thought of a friend recently passed, John Piesen.

Some backstory: Working in the same market, at the same jobs, with first names of John and a surname beginning with the letter ‘P’, names that were six letters long, well many fans were confused.

“So, how are things at the New York Post?” I was often asked. No doubt these same folks asked John Piesen how he was making out at Newsday.

I thought of John, this being the first year he would miss Saratoga in a half century. I thought of him, too, because there was a span of five or six years we celebrated Whitney eve together, along with Pohla Smith of UPI and later the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

There was no emotional attachment to Whitney eve necessarily, just another excuse to throw down a few at a watering hole on South Broadway. No one missed an opportunity back then; it was only a 24-day meet.

The night before opening day this year, another old friend, Matt Graves of the Albany Times-Union, the “Russ Harris of the North Country” because he picked more winners than any living human, was celebrating the return of another Spa season with friends.

Graves indeed holds the record with 141 winners picked at Saratoga one season, beating out about another 20 public handicappers, myself included, in the process.

Anyway, Graves was lifting a glass when his brother John said, “yeah, and it’s too bad about John Pricci.”

“What are you talking about?” Matt asked. “Oh, John died about a month ago.”

Graves told me this story in the Saratoga press box on Whitney morning. “So when I just said I was happy to see you this morning, I really meant that I was happy to see you. But that’s not the story.”

“Later that night I’m lying in bed watching Channel 13, and [sports anchor] Rodger Wyland says “and later on, we’ll have John Pricci’s first pick of the Saratoga season… I almost fell out of bed. And there you were.” At this point, I’m buckled over.

“No, wait,” said Graves, “there’s more.”

My brother and I are driving to the track Friday morning and Wyland says on his radio show, “After these messages, we’ll be back with John Pricci’s Xpressbet Bankroll Play of the Day.”

“You idiot,” Matt screamed at John, “I told you he didn’t die.”

On opening day, and every Friday during the Spa meet, Wyland and his partner Chris Onorato do a trackside remote for ESPN Radio, 104.5-FM The Team.

“Hey Preach, how are you?” Rodger asks me on the phone line. Crickets. There were some technical difficulties between the remote location and the broadcast studio.

“OK, we seem to be having difficulty with John’s phone, but he’ll be with us soon so don’t go away…”

“Hey John, we’ve finally got you now, so, are ready for opening day? John? John can you hear us?” More crickets, followed by the sound of a phone that went: Click.

“See, I told you!” John said to brother Matt.

Suddenly, it was 11:30 and time for Paul Lo Duca’s spot. NYRA’s newest “Saratoga Live” talent did his thing and I finally got on at about 11:45 am, “Big Board Sports’” final segment.

The cliché “better late than never” never was more applicable.

And, now that I am reminded again, yesterday I missed seeing John, and Paulie, and Wolfie, and Jack, and Bill, and Bill and Rick...

LET THE WAR OF WORDS BEGIN: I’m voting Gun Runner #1 when I submit my NTRA ballot Monday morning.

Now I’m not saying that if Gun Runner and Arrogate both brought their A+ games to a race at equal weights that Gun Runner is a better horse than Arrogate.

(Although Steve Asmussen did say he was thinking about how Arrogate beat his horse twice; the first time by 10, the second a little more than two. “We’re getting closer...”)

Agreed: In a perfect Grade 1 world, the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup on balance are more prestigious than the Stephen Foster and Whitney.

The difference for me is that in between three 2017 victories, Gun Runner was a good second to Arrogate in Dubai, while in his lone defeat Arrogate finished nowhere in Del Mar’s San Diego.

After his breeze earlier this week, Bob Baffert pronounced his horse is back and will stick with scheduled plans to run in the Pacific Classic.

I expect his effort there will prove that the San Diego was an aberration. We anticipate seeing Arrogate’s dominance on display once more.

But that’s just what I expected Always Dreaming to redeem his Preakness disappointment in the Jim Dandy.

Of course, I’m allowing for the fact that Todd Pletcher left some Travers gas in the tank and that Baffert will have Arrogate at 100 percent in two weeks.

But the point is that Arrogate has something to prove at Del Mar--that he’s the same Arrogate that has bedazzled us all who have watched him from the 2016 Travers to his remarkable 2017 Dubai World Cup victory.

Until August 19, on the most recent evidence, Gun Runner earned the #1 spot with his Whitney tour de force, spotting weight to all and giving them a thrashing.