A MORNING AT THE MUSEUM OF RACING LAUNCHED A LIFETIME OF RACETRACK MEMORIES

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.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Union Avenue

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.

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19 Responses

  1. JP,
    It was about a year following your first date with the lady you married that I had my first with the love of my life, but I had to chase that filly a lot longer before she corralled me. LOL

    Our second date involved an afternoon at Belmont Park, but our next trip to the track didn’t occur until after we married, and went to Saratoga to introduce her to some of my old horseplaying buddies and witness Secretariat’s defeat in the Whitney at the hooves of Onion.

    Unfortunately she never experienced the magic of cashing a winning ticket while initially engaging, and subsequently only accompanied me in the presence of other couples. Fortunately, some of those experiences were truly memorable.

    Our last visit to the track was to Hollywood Park shortly before it closed and we all cashed on a split ticket. She passed away just about this time last year. Since then, every time I root out loud for a play through my ADW, I still expect her to poke her head in to ask, “Are we rich yet?”

    1. Thank you for sharing a bittersweet memory–a year later and no less sorrowful. Peace my brother, and hopefully one day you can look up and say “made it, top of the world honey!”

  2. Well the summer of ’68 delivered to me a “greetings” from Lyndon, and it took me a while longer to find my better half and the road to the North Country. What a road it was however, camping at North Lake with my partner in life, and I will never forget my cashing tickets on Mac Miller’s Love Sign.

    Reading both John’s latest missive and Indulto’s comment, here’s my what’s on the flip side of that Bobby Darin record, I can attest to the fact that you are both rich beyond your years. Time evaluates us all, and to date in my book you both measure up as ‘high echelon’. You are indeed both rich yet and blessed beyond your years.

    My Riders Up by the way equates to keep winding the Timex. The evaluation process continues. Riders Up I said to my Best Man as my bride started down the aisle at St. Anne’s. Only 5-26-79, but gaining ground each passing day 😀, Thank you both for an enjoyable read. Stay six feet and safe, McD 😷

    1. McD, thinking Love Sign might have been Sid Watters Jr.?

      You are right about rich beyond any measure, really. Cashed the biggest bet when I found a woman who would love and support everything I’ve tried to accomplish, having many laughs, and tears, along the way.

      Could not be here without her.

      “I’m pissed, seven-nothing Jets,” I said to my best man as I awaited by bride, Jan. 12, 1969. (Yes, thought the Colts were a cinch. betting keeps you humble)!

  3. “Our second date came 12 hours later, in South Ozone Park, Queens.”

    I’m definitely in need of one more cup of coffee: when I read this, I thought you might be referring to Don Peppe!

    1. You mean Don Peppe and then the best baked clams in NYC. No, not that night, Doc. Can’t remember the name now but took her to that radio-station steak house hard by the LIE, north side.

      Anybody remember the name of that place? Great steaks but the radio station went off air and so went the steak house. So much for memory lane; Tampa PPs await…

  4. Sid Watters Jr. indeed John. You Loughlin guys are pretty sharp my friend. Might have been the cold beers consumed while watching from inside the inner rail that may have clouded my memory. More than likely just age though. I may have had a Mackenzie Miller winner on another venture. I’ll think about it over a cup of fresh “java” in the AM.

    Any hoot, 12:39 and It’s quittin’ time. I’m back on guard duty with the two grandsons on the flip side. The little one just discovered that we have fresh blueberries as well as raspberries out in the garden. I may have to enlist his Gram’s help as well tomorrow.

    1. I only remembered Sid Watters–a very nice man, BTW–because that filly was one of my faves. Would have loved to see her at 7/8s with any recent Breeders’ Cup F & M sprinters. She had head to head speed, but was extremely classy, the kind that would have worn down rivals a la Fager or Slew style… not comparing, just a female compared-to-what had they been females.

  5. John, Monmouth Park will restrict fans from bringing in coolers with food and drinks into the picnic area for the live racing starting on Friday. The MP Facebook page has gone wild – one thread has 326 comments – as many loyal thoroughbred supporters have indicated that they won’t be attending the races under these conditions. I can’t imagine sitting outside in 90 degree weather and not having a cooler nearby. Going back and forth into the long lines at the concession stands – at inflated prices – will not get this delayed and shortened meet off to a fast start. While Monmouth has eliminated the admission and parking charges, for all days except the Haskell, they have also taken away the ability to bring in your own refreshments – a time honored tradition in Oceanport, NJ. Hopefully, the management will quickly change this new restrictive policy back to normal before too long.

    1. I don’t know where I read this but I thought I saw that refreshment stands would be closed? Seems to me you can’t do both. We’ll see how it all shakes out…

  6. His prime was before my time, but with the way Irad Ortiz is now pushing the borderline multiple times a day at this point – is this how fans and writers talked about Angel Cordero back in the day?

  7. Absolutely Doc! I love Angel personally, know him a long time. But when I first came on the beat, I hated how he seemed to ride several horses in one race. My age might be showing but the great riders back in the day were a little more sophisticated when they dared take an edge.

    Worse, I never did like how stewards at any venue seem to be guided by the Jordan Rules; stars getting the star treatment…

    1. Hey John

      Creed won again, this time beating a very nice field of promising colts. He made a long sustained run, and just grinded the leaders down, then won going away. It’s eerie how much he runs like Indy and his own sire…He’s just got so much potential, I think. I’m guessing Shug will not throw him to the wolves, but then again, we’re not even sure who’s running in the Travers outside of Tiz. Shug might think that even if Creed isn’t ready to beat Tiz that he might be good enough to get a significant piece of the purse. Or, maybe he’ll prefer to try an easier stakes first…there’s no rush with him.

      1. Will catch up with Creed perhaps tomorrow; knew he won, just didn’t see it. Besides, I rely on you for such things! Thanks Bets…

    2. The Jordan Rules is what bothers me about Irad as well; it’s as if the NY stewards have set the precedent that his type of race riding (when done by him) is edgy but fair, and now it would look almost hypocritical for them to start flagging him. I found it telling that it took the Santa Anita stewards no time at all to throw a suspension at Irad when he went out there to ride in a big race.

      You can say ‘oh, that was a borderline call, coulda gone either way’ on most of them individually in a bubble, and say it was fair to keep him up – but when he is on the ‘clean’ side of 20 out of those 21 at Belmont, you aren’t dealing with a flipped coin.

      I don’t mean to demean Ortiz as a talent; I’m not delusional – the guy is clearly the best active jockey on the planet – but when you additionally give someone as great as him the other side of the line that others aren’t going to get, it seems unfair.

  8. Funny you should bring up the SA suspension–I personally thought that was bad call and wrote about it–as you say, an either way situation where I thought the “impeded” horse initiated the contact. I think this is what irritates most people; the inconsistency, especially when going state to state…

  9. Broadway your little chit chat of the old Spa brings back many cool memories like watching the horses being saddled under the many trees
    before that area turned into a picnic ground. also me and my honey were among the 55,000 that watched affirmed and alydar battle
    she was an affirmed fan and i loved alydar. oh the ole spa we were so lucky to feel that vibe. Your old school pal Maz

    1. Maz,

      I remember the day well and while I love living in SoFla, I surely miss the north country and wish I could get back there more often, but the fates have having their way at the moment.

      Hope you and your family are well. Stay safe!

      JP

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