Monday, July 23, 2012
By Paul Moran Special to ESPN.com
Historic Saratoga puts the focus back on horse racing for 40 days.
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- If the racing landscape has in recent years taken on the look of a lunar typography, this is the antidote.
There is, for 40 days, life at the races.
Saratoga, in spirit, is oblivious to the many things that plague the racing business nowadays. Controversy and tumult, both real and the spawn of agenda-driven contrivance, has become pervasive. But, until Labor Day, we return to racing, horses, tradition, idyllic mornings shrouded in mist illuminated by first light and electric afternoons. Whatever strife, threat and nonsense that waits will be there in September.
For now, the conversation is about the pick-six, not the specter of misguided Federal meddling or the recent state takeover of the New York Racing Association for better (yeah, right) or more realistically and ominously for the worse. It's about the upcoming pick-four, not debate over the efficacy of Lasix or the long-term ravages of corticosteroids. It's about 2-year-olds who have revealed the tease of promise in the infancy of careers as yet undefined and about who might show up for the Travers now that I'll Have Another and Union Rags are retired.. It's about the midday fast-food decision -- Hattie's fried chicken, Pie on Wheels or the Shake Shack. It's about the dominance of speed on turf courses hardened by an unquenched thirst for rain, the fact that open maiden races in New York now offer purses of $80,000 to $85,000 and the reality that the best party in town may be going on at a picnic in the backyard. It's about the price of a cocktail at Siro's and dinner tabs that rival the price of a used car. It's about too many turf sprints and the best places to play golf on dark Tuesdays. It's about finding a seat.
It's still among the few places where a seersucker suit and bow tie doesn't get a second look and people dress for the races. It's about no one being surprised or minding that nothing, including plumbing, works on opening day. It's about the guy with the Armani suit, yellow Gucci loafers and no socks attracting no attention whatsoever.
The nation's oldest racetrack, for 40 days, is full of people having fun, dominated by a demographic far younger than the typical racing crowd and more deeply tanned. They are hunched over the Daily Racing Form in the morning at the sidewalk cafes on Broadway and on the porches of the bed-and-breakfasts along Union Avenue. They gather in the evenings to recount the day's pari-mutuel triumphs and traumas over many cocktails. The daily average attendance at the track rivals the resident population of a town that no one visits only once.
The place has a pulse. It breathes. It makes a horseplayer smile.
Perhaps the people that make Saratoga Springs an obligatory summer destination spend the rest of the year sitting at computers, watching races on television and betting over the Internet, but an understanding of the Spa is at once shared and entirely personal. It demands attendance in the flesh. For the true fans of racing, it provides a renewed sense of what lured them to the track in the first place, a remembrance of things lost and gentler times past.
Friendly folks and a family atmosphere help add to Saratoga's mystique.
Hundreds of books have been written about the place but none has fully captured its essence. The experience -- and Saratoga is truly an experience as much as a place -- is more sensory than literary. Horses great and otherwise move at arm's length among the gathered fans, a crowd that spans the socio-economic spectrum. The measure of social status, it is said, is access to grass after the perpetual motion of the crowd has by the meeting's second week left most of the ground bare and hard. Grass survives mainly in the shaded paddock, where horses are sill saddled beneath century-old trees and entry is restricted in theory to owners and horsemen.
Jockeys walk among the patrons en-route to the paddock and upon return from races, an intimacy between participant and spectator replicated nowhere else in a sporting venue. Ramon Dominguez and John Velazquez walk in the footprints of Eddie Arcaro. A sense of elegance and history pervades. This is, after all, the once-bawdy playground of Eastern society and notorious gamblers, ground on which every important thoroughbred has run and scene of many of racing's most stunning upsets. It is also near the scene of what is widely considered the pivotal battle of the American Revolution but that, for racing folk, is a footnote.
If only temporarily, the real world can be held at arm's length, all life revolves around horses and the day's racing. All spirits gathered here are kindred.
This is the sporting life as it should be. Yet, it is a short season always followed by an abrupt return to reality. This time, there is a lingering sense of dread pushed to the background but inevitably confronted: Can racing in New York -- even in the throes of unprecedented prosperity, survive the state's government?
There are, after all, no sure things.
But that is best left until September.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.