Tuesday, February 26, 2008


A fellow TBA blogger sent out a note to all of us the other day asking if we were planning on going to Saratoga this year. The hope is that if enough of us were there, we could have a bit of an informal gathering. Sadly for me, life will get in the way and I won't be able to get to upstate New York this August. Happily it's because my kids will be here in Minnesota all summer and we'll be spending most of our time at Canterbury.

My first, and only, trip to Saratoga was in August of 1988. I drove up from Washington, DC solo and booked a room in Albany in a hotel right off the Thruway. This gave me great access to the highway for my quick trip up to Saratoga Springs and I didn't have to pay the high hotel costs in the Springs. For about two months before the trip I was buying the Daily Racing Form every day and making notations on the NY charts. This was different for me because I was a Maryland guy and my forays to the track consisted of Laurel and Pimlico as well as Rosecroft and Freestate. This was before the widespread dissemination of information on the internet and replays at your fingertips. Also, the only simulcasting, aside from OTB in New York and race books in Las Vegas, were big races that were beamed to other tracks. You didn't have full card simulcasting in those days so the only data I had to go on were the charts from Aqueduct and Belmont. I knew from reading my Andy Beyer and Steve Crist that there was great information to be gleaned in these charts. So when I headed up to the Spa, I went weighted down with about sixty Forms in the back seat of my Honda Accord.

I got to the hotel and unloaded. It took me a couple of trips to lug everything into the hotel. It was a new hotel and the rates were great. Apparently they didn't know of the demand around August. In fact, I know they didn't because I asked at the front desk why they were so much less than everyone else. The manager told me he had no idea why everyone else was so high - or why they seemed so busy with the Legislature and the University both out of session. I didn't enlighten him - I wanted to try and protect my hiding place for another year.

I settled into my room and sorted out all my information. I went to go buy the Form for the next day and grab a bite to eat. Then I went to work. I had paper everywhere, but the charts were a great help. I was armed and ready to go. The next morning I got up early, showered and headed up the highway. They did a "Breakfast on the Rail" program along with a backstretch tour that I wanted to do. I had an average breakfast during morning workouts, but it tasted like heaven watching the horses go by. With no roaring crowd you could hear every chirp from the jockey and the pounding of each hoof. It was a gorgeous upstate NY morning as I stepped into the tram car and took my tour of the backstretch.

This was the first backstretch I had ever been on. It was beautiful. The barns were fresh and clean and familiar faces were everywhere - Shug McGaughey, D. Wayne Lukas, Chris McCarron. I thought that this was the way backstretches were across America! Turns out...not so much...

The National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame was conducting the Hall of Fame inductions when I was there as well. The honorees were horses Chris Evert, Majestic Prince and 1880's Emperor of Norfolk; trainers Jacob Pincus and Angel Penna; and jockey Angel Codero Jr. In those days a tent was erected across the street from the museum and I just walked in and sat down on one of the folding chairs about six rows back and enjoyed the ceremony. After the inductions, I walked over to the clubhouse and Larry Hagman, complete with cane and cowboy hat, went striding on by me with his entourage (or posse, as my kids would say now). It was like being a kid in a candy store. In hindsight, I was only 22 so I really was a kid in a candy store!

I got to my grandstand seat the first day and just nailed the card. I think I played 5 races on the day, won 3 and had 2 exactas. My bankroll was small, but in those days, a $300 day was tremendous and I was thrilled. All the study and investment paid off!! I celebrated by heading down the street to the harness track and added another $50 to the bankroll. The drive down the Thruway back to the hotel was a breeze. Hell, I thought, at this rate I'll be picking up a grand this weekend. Considering my take home pay at the time as a Legislative Assistant to a US Congressman was about $1200 a month, I was happy as a clam.

Until I got back to my room. The maid had 'cleaned' the room. And by cleaned, I mean that every issue of the Form was gone. I left them stacked neatly on the table in the corner and they were gone. I went flying to the front desk frantic. The manager on duty had no clue to the significance of my loss. They were gone. Trashed. Unceremoniously carted away. I wanted to dumpster dive for them, but their dumpster is emptied every day. Months of charts and notes and horses to watch gone. I was livid. Even looking back on it with the maturity of age, I cannot imagine what possessed her to throw away two neatly stacked piles of newspapers. I tried to get some kind of compensation, but was denied.

I did my best over the next three days, but didn't come close to matching the success of Day 1. By the time I started back to Washington I was down for the trip $185 dollars plus expenses. I think now some of that was due to my state of mind after losing the data I had compiled. There is an old saying that 'scared money never wins'. I also think that something to the effect of 'wagering without confidence never wins' can be applied here. My confidence was shot and I was constantly second guessing myself the rest of the weekend.

On the way home I detoured through Goshen, NY to visit the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and the Historic Track. Unfortunately the track wasn't open, but I spent several hours in the museum. It was very interesting comparing how the two forms of horse racing developed in this country. While Thoroughbreds were the province of the rich and powerful, harness racing was ingrained in the culture of America's heartland. Currier and Ives. Hambletonian and Dan Patch. Families in harness racing go back generations and many owners train and drive their own horses as the make the state and county fair circuit. Certainly centers of harness racing like Chicago, New York and NJ now dominate the sport, but smaller meets are conducted every summer - many non wagering events - at fairgrounds in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and throughout the Midwest. It was a fun and entertaining stop and a nice wrap up before the last segment of the trip back to DC.

Regardless how the weekend turned out from a wagering perspective, Saratoga remains in my heart as the soul of racing. I know my West Coast friends will disagree and Del Mar's shore setting is wonderful, but as an East Coast guy, I am looking forward to making another pilgrimage to my shrine of thoroughbred racing.


John said...

Nice post Ted but after twenty years it's definitely time for that return trip. Yes Saratoga is a unique experience and next time leave the Forms in the car !!!

PEM said...

Del Mar? Nice place-beautiful weather-second rate horses. Been doing the Spa thing about 10 years now-sometimes I can even sneak in a second trip closing week if I don't go bust early in the meet.

And if you ever get the chance-closing week is a wonderful time. All the fancy clothes are back at the dry cleaner, the weather is much cooler, the lunatic crowds have retreated to Boston or Brooklyn or Philly-and those 3PM post times are a blast as well.

20 years? You need to find the time bud.............