Father’s Day tribute to Papa Backstretch

I’ve stopped keeping track of the number of racing fans I know who were first brought to the track by their fathers. Count me among them.

I know for sure that by the time that I was six and my brother was four, my parents were taking us to the races; it might have been before then. But I remember distinctly one summer night, as we walked into Saratoga Raceway, my mother and father quite seriously instructing my brother as we walked to the entrance turnstile, “If anyone asks, you’re five years old. Got it?” He nodded solemnly. “You’re five years old,” they repeated. Apparently, children under five were not permitted at the race track and I guess we had a horse running that night.

My brother took his lesson seriously and solemnly approached the turnstile. Without question, the attendant let us in, and the moment my brother emerged on the other side, he looked up at my parents and said quite clearly, “Can I be four again now?”

My parents owned a series of inexpensive standardbreds from the early seventies through the early eighties. They had one Big Horse and a couple of steady winners; my father recently told me, “Willie Gal K once won nine races in a year, and she never went faster than 2:05.”

My mother once dreamt three numbers and bet them in a trifecta at Yonkers; it paid $2,700. $2,500 went for Mighty Jeff, on whom my father bet a wad of cash in his first start for us. Mighty Jeff went off at long odds, and that night, the horse paid for himself.

Papa Backstretch, as he was christened by Dana Byerly of Green but Game last summer at Saratoga (she’s also been known to refer to him as “my idol”), is long out of the ownership game, but his interest in racing hasn’t waned. These days, it’s usually more about Thoroughbreds than harness horses.

In this case, the apple has fallen quite far from the tree; he cares little for the stories and history in which his daughter is absorbed, and I can recall only one instance in decades of track-going with him that he’s made anything resembling a sentimental bet. He calls me the “worst handicapper in the world” (I beg to differ: I am a decent handicapper, but a lousy bettor), and his approach is strictly old-school.

If he can’t bet with a human teller, he sends one of his children to the machine to bet for him. If he can’t get to OTB or simulcasting, he calls me at work: “How much money do you have in your account? Can you make a bet for me?”

Not for him hours absorbed in data, speed figures, past performances. He buys the program—not the Form—when he gets to the track; “studies,” as he puts it, between races; and bets confidently. On one notable Friday at Belmont a year ago, he earned the respect of Jessica Chapel of Railbird by going seven for nine; I mocked him for betting the 7 horse for the fourth race in a row; he mocked me as I went to the window to collect for him.

Not for him, usually, the exotics. $10 to win is the default bet, $20 if things are going well. He has his favorite angles, trainers, jockeys; he looks for impressive work patterns; he pays close attention to conditions. Forget the paddock, forget the post parade. What does the program tell me? In ten to fifteen minutes between races, he knows all he needs to.

I’ve inherited a lot from my father—our personalities are remarkably similar, and I look a lot like him. He also instilled in me, for better or worse, lifelong affiliations with racing and with the Rangers; he brought me to the Garden for the first time when I was four years old, and I remember reading the program at Saratoga Raceway shortly after I learned to read. I was awfully proud that I could decipher all of those symbols and shortcuts and abbreviations.

A day at the races is never quite as fun when he’s not there, and maybe one of these days, those acute handicapping and betting skills will somehow transfer to me. But even if they don’t, I have plenty of racing—and other—gifts for which to thank him. Happy Father’s Day, Dad—see you at the track.

Baby picture with Dad

12 thoughts on “Father’s Day tribute to Papa Backstretch

  1. Thanks for a wonderful Father's Day post. My dad wasn't a horse racing guy (instead of the track, we bonded at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden). But taking my son (and wife) to Belmont is one of life's great pleasures. If it weren't raining today, we'd be there. Instead, we'll hold off until next week, when we make our first visit to Finger Lakes.

  2. Ha, great Papa Backstretch profile… I loved that post where he went 7 for 9 at Belmont, particularly the mocking part. Too funny.He's pretty tight lipped on what he looks for, although I still have some hope of dragging a couple of his favorite angles out him… the best I could get was "it was the trainer". When Swifty & I went to dinner with you at Saratoga he shared the classic "time only matters when you're in prison". We'll see what I can get out of him this year.

  3. My Dad was a horse racing guy-but we bonded over baseball -he is a Bklyn Dodger fan who went with the Mets when the Dodgers "defected" to LA.But taking my daughter and Son to the races every summer at Saratoga is one of my great pleasures. I love going to the track both alone and with others, but when I go with my kids, I always feel a different type of happiness.

  4. What a great Father's Day blog. My dad started out as a horse show dad and then we moved on to going to the track together when he became friends with another horse show dad and trainer. Some of my best memories are spending summer nights at ACRC learning how to place bets and cheering on our friends. Bliss. 🙂

  5. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and to comment. I love hearing about the other family track stories, and Dana, my advice is to sit close and eavesdrop!

  6. TeresaThank you for the Fathers Day post.It refreshed my memories of my Dad and me at the track….I did the 'running' for him to make his bets, and I swear he was right there with me on Sunday, and I could hear an echo of his favorite gag..I would always ask when he gave me the money for his bet.."To win?" And without missing a beat, he would always say "What then? To lose?"Poppa Fink

  7. What a beautiful post. Happy that you put it back up so that I could enjoy such a lovely tribute to your dad. I don’t think that my father ever took me to the track although I grew up in Louisville. My love for racing emanated from one single horse, Canonero II, but, ah, that’s a whole nother story. In fact my dad actually thought that maybe I had a gambling addiction because I used to drive straight to the track when school let out to catch the last few races of the day and because I went out to CD by myself 3 or 4 times a week back when they ran an extended summer racing schedule. I sat out there day after day in the grueling sun, mostly me and a grizzled clientele about three times my age. At that point, I knew the horses, the trainers, and had a group of wise guy tipsters who were always willing to give me some free advice (mainly after the race was over, however). I miss my dad and was disappointed again this morning to realize that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call him. Best to you and your father and family.

  8. Great post Teresa,
    Makes us all think of the great memories we have shared with our dads and horse racing.
    One of my earliest memories was coming home with pockets full of all the change leftover from any winning bets.
    And there’s a picture around somewhere, taken at Delaware Park, with me taking a nap on a bench under the trees, covered by a Racing Form. I was probably 3.
    And that was just the beginning….

  9. What a great tribute! My grandfather was the track man in my family. I would love to know what is strategy was today. Hope to see you and papa backstretch at the track one day soon.

    • I hope so, too, Deb! And thanks for those kind words. You, too, Susan, and I really miss those great old colored mutuel tickets we used to get.

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