Friday, July 05, 2013

The Heart of the Sesquicentennial: Being There

One Hundred and fifty years ago two days ago, the Battle of Gettysburg ended. Turns out it was pivotal battle, or so I’ve heard. Pre-penny President Abraham Lincoln even spoke there in November of 1863. Zounds!

A good friend of mine wrote a great piece about it for titled Three Days in Gettysburg. You should buy it. After reading this every week it would do you well to read work from a respected journalist.

One hundred fifty years and one month ago yesterday, Saratoga hosted its first day of serious horse racing. It’s as if the Civil War generals took a sojourn to Saratoga for the races. The last battle before Saratoga commenced was on July 28, the Battle of Stony Lake in the Dakota Territories. Fighting didn’t resume until August 17 with a depressing sequel: The Second Battle of Fort Sumter. (The first movie is always better.)

It seemed even when the war front was very much on our front door, there was enough time and enough horses (surprised they weren’t rationed) to host some horse racing.

While the racing media descended on the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, or whatever it’s called, to learn about bobble head dolls and beer steins, I went to the racing museum and met Victoria Tokarowski, curator for the Sesquicentennial Exhibit.

“This was the perfect chance to bring out items in our collection and tell stories of racing at Saratoga and share as much of that with the public,” Tokarowski said.”

Though I can’t be sure of the numbers, museums only show a fraction of what they own. The best stuff is in the back room. Saratoga 150 allowed Tokarowski, a native Upstater, to dig and she found stuff, man.

Her favorite piece was the Travers trophy awarded to Attila in the 1874. It was the first dead-heat in the history of the Travers, though they’d have a run off, which Attila won. The first official dead-heat was a year ago when the incredible Alpha and the meteoric Golden Ticket split a paycheck.

“The sport has such a rich history and it’s been going for so many years,” Tokarawoski said. “There are so many horses, records are still broken, champions made and stories associated with racing. The track closed and always came back. It’s a great celebration year and great time to be in Saratoga.”

The timeline she and others set up starts with a photograph of John Morrissey, the track’s founder, in his bare-knuckle boxing uniform. The timeline is the spine onto which are threaded photographs and artifacts. Not to mention the kiosk where patrons can view famous races.

During my time at the museum I heard an almost endless reel of Rachel Alexandra’s 2009 Woodward Stakes. Her performance was only surpassed by Tom Durkin’s call. It’s right up there with the 2004 Belmont and 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

You walk around the timeline and you see Easy Goer bucking in the paddock with Shug McGaughey desperately trying to cinch the girth. There’s Man o’ War standing proud. Then there’s an entire case devoted to the 2009 Woodward Stakes with all sorts of Rachel Alexandra regalia.

It elicits something nostalgic within you. The more you follow this game, the more you forget what brought you into in the first place. The more you follow it, the more you don’t want to follow what's going on now. Yet walking around the Saratoga 150 exhibit, you’re reminded of good times passed and the good times you know will come again. It’s like an Instagram filter.

“I’m excited for the public to experience it,” Tokarawoski said. “Racing fans old and new may say, ‘I was there that day.’”

I’ve always wrestled with this question: How can a sport thrive when its only way of celebrating is to look to its past? There’s so little forward celebration, but maybe that’s always been the case. What brings us through the present is the hope of one day looking back and say, “I was there that day.”

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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