Saratoga Springs, NY--

Dear Diary,

Happy 29th Birthday!


Just wanted to get that out of the way. Been through a lot, you and me. But this is no time for nostalgia. Opening day is upon us. Quickly, out of vacation mode. Time to press on.

So, Happy 139th Birthday, Saratoga!

You’ve been through a lot more than me. The bad, and the very, very good.

In this game, that’s as good as it gets.

Starting tomorrow Saratoga gets busy creating new memories. Get busy living or get busy dying, Andy Dufresne would say.

But how can the grand dame of American racetracks do that when she doesn’t even know who she is, or what she is?

So who’s going to be the landlord next year? Still the New York Racing Association? Empire Racing or Capital Play or Excelsior Racing, who won the actual bidding before the new governor said never mind and let’s do it again.

Then how does one get on with the future when one doesn’t know what that future will bring?
Don’t expect sympathy on this from me, dear diary. Saratoga looks a lot better than I do and she‘s got, according to the birthday salutations above, 110 years on me.

No matter. Saratoga Race Course will be here long after many of those who love her are gone.

To this point in 2007, Saratoga’s and New York racing’s prospects has been future-by-trial-balloon.

But the promise is, after new bids are submitted, all will know on September 4th, the day after the meet ends. After consulting the powerful “HRI Deadlines-To-Leaks Index” it could happen sooner.

I’ve set the over/under at 4 ˝ days. (August 31st is a push).

Hey, diary, wonder if any NBA bettors will be in attendance opening day? If so, how’s this idea for a promotional spot: “Bet On Us. Better Odds. Less Crooked Officiating.”

I know, anything for a laugh.


But the real truth is I don’t think racing has any need to apologize. Racing’s zebras are the least of all officiating evils in terms of adjudicating racing infractions.

Administratively, however, the stewards are often powerless. The constraints of politics and real world pressures often demands that officials be careful not to throw away the industry baby with the medications bath-water.

Everybody knows that racing can and needs to get a lot more serious about illegal drugs but it’s making strides.

Hey, diary, did Bonds hit any today? How many’s he got now?

The difference between a 15 percent and 25 percent trainer is about $1,500 a month in vet bills.

If racetracks just printed the name of the attending veterinarian in their official program, as my former Newsday colleague Paul Moran wrote many years ago, they will have gained what overseer politicians crave whenever they’ve got some person or entity under a microscope: Transparency.

The industry knows that testing probably never will catch up with what comes out of the pharmacological pipeline. Just give the fans the information they need to draw their own conclusions. Let the chips fall. It’s good public relations putting your customers first.

Racing and wagering are service industries. Whenever something untoward happens in sports, it seems Las Vegas is always there to come to the aid of industry investigators, to show them just how stuff can happen. Trust the people that monitor the games people play on a 24/7 basis.

(I won’t even get into what Michael Vick allegedly did. Far too monstrous and depressing).

So, yeah, diary, the Saratoga vibe is weird this year. Like Sherry Ross of the New York Daily News wrote about the upcoming meet, “uncertainty underlies anticipation.”

But the anticipation is always for a renewed celebration of history, health and horses, the road signs reminding you as you drive into town that these timeless antiquities are woven into the fabric here.

...In Saratoga, where racing as sport is still king because the horses and the people tethered to it would rather win or lose here than anywhere else.

You can dress up and you can dress down and you can stay out so late it becomes early. Because after realizing that you’re relatively sound of mind and body, all that’s left in Saratoga is to talk horses.

Generally, horse talk occurs only three times a day: at morning, noon or night. And you never hear a single apology for it, either. The term guilty pleasure need not apply.

But with so much going on, no wonder the vibe is a little strange. And it’s raining right now. Rain may be good for the rhubarb but it’s bad for the psyche.

If weather handicappers pick a winner then sunlight will be plentiful when race caller Tom Durkin exhorts the crowd to sound-byte “They’re Off at Saratoga!” at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

The first thing fans will notice about opening day entries are field sizes of 16, 15, 14, 13 and two of 11, among the 123 horses entered in 10 races, including the Grade 3 Schuylerville.

And purse size, too: A maiden special weight baby race for a purse of $62,000; a preliminary allowance/optional claimer for $67,000 and a straight $20,000 claimer running for nearly twice the tag; $35,000.

No wonder some horsemen had a hard time getting stalls. Demand for space is always high at this meet but perhaps no greater in recent history than it was this year.

While it’s no cinch to happen, what if Curlin and Street Sense were to continue in Saratoga what they started in Baltimore?

As it is, having Street Sense be the first Derby winner to run back in the “Midsummer Derby” since Thunder Gulch in 1995 alone is worthy of a Travers day admission.

Diary, I have no fear. The horses will save Saratoga, the way the racing here always has.

As this meet begins, the strange uncertainty over what the future holds for Saratoga and New York racing is for me, and many others, palpable.

And then it will be September 4th, the precise instant when New York’s racing history collides head-on with its future.