Saratoga Springs, New York is a town with a million stories. Many involve exploits at the Saratoga Race Course. Big scores, narrow misses and tragic defeats make up the bulk of racing experiences. I could tell many of those stories. However, it’s the off-track late night stories that make up the lore and mystique of The Spa.
By Mark Berner
For twelve years I lived on White Street. It’s a short walk to the track and half way between my house and the racetrack is Siro’s, the legendary bar and restaurant. Often, I would stop there on the way home.
There was an old racetracker there from Saratoga. He had five dogs throughout his adult life, all named Kelso. He watched the races at Siro’s each day and when he left, he would give me his seat at the bar.
One evening in the 1980’s, while I sat at the bar, I heard the familiar sound of hooves and was quite surprised to look up and see a horse in the building. It was the British Grand National champion, Ben Nevis.
In 1979, Ben Nevis was fourth choice in the wagering for the storied Grand National but fell at The Chair, a famous jump. In the 1980 edition of the event, he went off at 40-to-1 and won by 20 lengths under American amateur rider, Charlie Fenwick. Ben Nevis became the third American-owned jumper to win the Grand National. He would later die of colic in 1995, at age 27.
When Ben Nevis entered Siro’s his stay was short for fear that he would leave his calling card on the floor. Posthumously, in 2009, he was forever enshrined in Racing’s Hall of Fame.
Another night at Siro’s found me alone at the bar. The yearling sales were ongoing not far away. It seems that everyone was there but me.
A nice gent, who had left the sales early, walked in and sat catty-corner from me on the other side of the bar. He asked, “Are you selling anything?”
It was the eighties, the decade of excess, and I was unsure what he was referring to, so I answered with an all-encompassing reply. “I’m probably the only one in this town who’s not selling anything.”
He laughed and we struck up a conversation. Over several drinks, we traded tales of racing, music and I found he had a great affinity for Broadway. So entranced with the topics, we didn’t notice that the sales had ended and the bar was packed.
At the end of the night, we introduced ourselves to each other and I found that my new friend was none other than the famous actor, playwright, author, screenwriter and director, Sam Shepard. Shepard later played the role of trainer Frank Whiteley, Jr. in the movie “Ruffian.”
On August 24, 1986, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan perform at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It was less than two months before Vaughan entered rehab for addiction to drugs and alcohol, and two days shy of four years before he died in a helicopter crash after playing a gig at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, WI.
After the show, I went into town looking for some excitement and I hoping to find someone to hang with me. My first stop was Lillian’s, which was dead, so I ventured down to Caroline Street.
I heard music coming from the Tin and Lint so I went in. There was a good local band playing, but not to be confused with Stevie Ray. A short while later, however, it was.
While I sat at the bar listening, in walks Vaughan. I was drinking scotch, his choice was Crown Royal. We became friends instantly. We both played guitar—he was a tad better–were fans of the blues, brown whiskey and an eighties staple, a popular substance made of white powder.
After a few drinks, Vaughan got up and jammed with the band. The local guitarist had a backup guitar on stage, a Fender Stratocaster, SRV’s guitar of choice. He plugged in, adjusted the knobs on the amp and guitar and bingo; it was the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Only hours before he had played on a huge stage at SPAC. Suddenly, here was that same sound coming out on what was more a platform than stage. It was so small that the four bandmates barely fit. When SRV joined, they were elbow to elbow, but they were all so elated that no one cared.
Stevie Ray played until the end of the set, had another drink, and left. The band had an once-in-a-lifetime story to tell. Their kids and their kid’s kids must have heard a million times about the night they played with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It was Friday, July 30, 1993, and the Allman Brothers Band were headlining the second annual H.O.R.D.E. Festival. That was the day the entire travelling review rolled into SPAC.
I worked at the track until the races ended then went with my old friend, racing writer and music critic John Swenson, along with his brother Eddie, and two or three of their cousins, to catch the remaining acts at SPAC.
We parked on the park-side of SPAC and the will-call tickets were not available at that entrance. Swenson had two tour laminates. He took one and went backstage and I took the other and went to the box office on Route 50. We made a plan to meet up after one of us secured tickets.
I found the tickets, returned, and got everyone inside the amphitheater. We watched and listened but at some point we split up and went off in different directions.
I found myself back at the seats for the Allmans performance and was surprised to see one guitarist, Dickey Betts, doing a silly dance behind the other guitarist, Warren Haynes, while Haynes was playing a lead.
Betts did not hide his vices and had too much to drink on occasion. I quickly recognized that this was one of those crazy, crazy nights.
Following the show, I realized that our group had split up but I had to find the rest because they were my ride home. Swenson and I had a standing plan to meet backstage if ever such an occasion arose.
When I arrived backstage, I ran into the Allmans’ tour manager, Kirk West. However, he had not seen Swen since John was backstage earlier looking for the tickets.
I hung out hoping to hook up with someone and ran into Gregg Allman in a meet-and-greet room. He was signing all kinds of memorabilia and looked up at me laughing as he signed an 8-track tape. “I didn’t know any of these still existed,” he said with an ear-to-ear grin.
(In the small-world-after-all department, years later I became friends with Jesse Anson, whose 8-track Gregg had signed that night).
I gave up hope of finding my friends and ran into Betts on the way out. He was halfway up the drive from the loading dock, smoking a joint with some people I assumed were his friends.
I stopped to talk and had a few hits. Dickey was agitated. He spoke of the band not having a leader and thrust upon him was the task: “It’s not my band anymore,” he said. “No one wants to lead rehearsals.”
I tried to reason with him but he did not buy any part of what I was saying. The last thing he needed was another drink, which was where I was headed, so I said goodnight.
Failing to hook up, I walked up to the Gideon Putnam Hotel and called for a taxi. “Take me to Siro’s.” Upon arriving at my favorite haunt, Nord, the bartender and a good friend, told me the news: Dickie Betts had been arrested.
Stunned, I explained how I was just with him, less than an hour before.
Saratoga’s finest had responded to a call from Dickey’s wife, Donna, saying he was drunk and abusive when they returned to the Holiday Inn after the gig. After the guitarist decided to shove a police officer, he found himself in handcuffs.
Arrested on a Friday night, Betts spent the weekend in jail before he saw a judge Monday morning. Allman staffers eventually bailed him. But Betts did not return to the band and instead flew home to Sarasota, FL. Not long thereafter, he checked himself into rehab.
When you think you have seen it all in Saratoga, you had better say maybe. You never know whom you may meet or what might happen in any given 24 hours at the Spa. I just was very happy to be a part of it.
Many people have a bucket list of things to do. I’m lucky enough not to need one. I lived mine.
© Mark Berner, HorseRaceInsider.com, All Rights Reserved, July 9, 2019.