It was the summer of 1968 when my fiancé, now wife of 51 years, and I made the drive north from New York City to Saratoga Springs. Everything was happening so fast back then. It was only six months since our first date, a whirlwind weekend that had horse racing destiny written all over it.
That weekend started on a Friday night at the Copa. Toni and I were big Bobby Darin fans, and this was in Darin’s blue-denim If I Were a Carpenter stage. He ended his set with a roaring rendition of Mack the Knife, raised the mic stand to its highest level, and ran off stage.
Our second date came 12 hours later, in South Ozone Park, Queens. To paraphrase what Burt Lancaster said wistfully to Susan Sarandon as they strolled the boardwalk in Atlantic City, “you should have seen the Big A in those days…”
It didn’t hurt that Toni had $2 on the winning Oglethorpe, at 8-1, because she learned in history class that it was Mrs. Oglethorpe’s son, James, who founded a colony for debtors in Georgia … and this was gambling after all.
And so that summer we followed the yellow brick road to the Spa and, as Red Smith wrote, we turned right on Union Avenue, went back a hundred years, and at once into a future lifetime as racetrackers.
It became apparent immediately that Saratoga would become an integral part of our future together when, as we drove passed Greenridge Place, the site of bucolic Greenridge Cemetery, Toni said, “when I die that’s where I want to be buried.”
That told me two things; that she instantly fell in love with Saratoga and that this weekend sojourn could last a lifetime.
Our first touristy act together was a morning visit to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and we took it all in; the art, the plaques dedicated to the best of the best, both equine and human, and got to see John A. Morris up close and personal as he lectured on racing history.
Imagine, I thought, the man behind those impressive red silks, John A. Freaking Morris, born on third base but who hit a home run as the controversial founder of the Louisiana Lottery and ultimately becoming Chairman of the Board of old Morris Park Racecourse in the Bronx, standing 10 feet in front of me.
But I’m certain he could never imagine what was in store for a new and improved Hall of Fame and Museum, especially what is to transpire under the stewardship of its Board of Directors including John Hendrickson, husband of the late Marylou Whitney, as he helps guide racing’s pantheon into the 21st Century.
It’s odd that in the week Churchill Downs announced that the Kentucky Derby will be held before spectators that I became acutely aware of the current Museum renovation which is well into its initial stage but currently closed down.
This coincidence strongly hints that whether or not Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his approval for Saratoga with fans, the upstate community that’s so dependent on Thoroughbred racing, and the Racing Museum so reliant on public support, might err on the side of caution.
Saratoga Springs has done well amid the pandemic vis a vis local outbreak and it’s doubtful whether its citizens are enthusiastic about rolling the dice on visitors that traditionally swells the town to three times its normal population. But this is an aside to what racing fans can expect eventually.
One of the new Museum features is a video presentation www.racingmuseum.org whereby fans would be immersed into the middle of horse racing, racing-in-the-round if you will. The auditorium will place visitors in the midst of racing history via technical wizardry.
In sum, the Hall of Fame will be digitally interactive and feature a multi-screen 360-degree video experience. The goal is to educate and excite attendees by using racing’s beauty and power that touches emotions, racing’s past glory come to life in a manner John A. Morris never could have envisioned.
Upon conclusion of the film, six-foot touchscreen monitors are available for fans to take a deeper dive into the achievements of the sport’s best horses, trainers, jockeys, and people like Morris who laid the foundation.
In addition, a Race Day Gallery will allow fans to experience what a visit to the paddock, track, and winner’s circle is like. Of course, the artifacts, paintings, sculptures, trophies, and memorabilia that have always been on display will continue acting as indices to America’s first and oldest sporting pastime.
Renovation of the Museum began January 1st and excellent progress was being made until the process was halted in March due to COVID-19. With construction recently given a green light to resume, the hope is that the Museum could open anew in early fall.
When it’s safe enough for a couple of septuagenarians to travel again, I know they will look forward to spending a dark-day morning where a racing odyssey first began.