Labor Day is Backstretch family day at Saratoga; members of the extended clan head to the track, armed with coolers and sandwiches and cans of beer, to spend closing day at the races, unencumbered by any obligations other than those of betting, eating, drinking, and enjoying.
The day starts at 7:00 a.m., when the table is secured, always in the same spot. It continues with coffee at the workouts, and sometimes, a stroll to the backstretch. This year, one Nephew Backstretch—the other is out of town with a friend—encounters a jockey. Encouraged, the seven-year-old asks for an autograph; it is willingly given, along with an invitation to the jockey’s room later, for goggles. The goggles are duly delivered after the fifth race, along with a couple of other jockey room treats, to the delight of the Nephew. Thanks, Mig.
We encounter Allen Jerkens; he’s in his golf cart, watching his horses work, and he’s jovial, despite getting the duck for the first time in his career. Emboldened, the Nephew climbs on the back of the golf cart. “Can I ride on here?” he asks. Embarrassed, Brother Backstretch and I begin to figuratively pull him off the back of the cart, when we are interrupted. “Of course you can,” says the Chief. And off they zip to his barn, where the Nephew feeds and pets Circus, the stable pony. The day is off to a good start.
A cloudy and chilly morning gives way to warmth and sunshine partway through the card, and sunshine that looks like autumn falls on the paddock. The backyard is full, the seats inside seem less so. On most days, 11 races feels like too many, but today, we’re grateful for every minute of racing before it’s gone again for another year.
We get two stakes races today, the Grade III Glens Falls for the girls, the Grade I Hopeful for the boys. In the former, Backstretch favorite Mushka adds a graded stakes win on turf to her graded stakes win on dirt (the 2007 Remsen). 22 months of watching her, of getting information about workouts and starts and results, and it’s still exciting, still a thrill, to watch her win.
D. Wayne Lukas wins the Hopeful with Dublin, and there’s only one more race to go. With Parents Backstretch, I head to the roof, to watch one more time from that magnificent place, to look out over the infield and the backstretch, to see late afternoon sunshine turning everything gold. I swear, to myself and out loud, that I’m not going to be sad, but it’s not working, and it gets worse when Ramon Dominguez pulls up Todo K, and we can see that it’s bad.
Cash’n in Dixie becomes the last winner of the 2009 Saratoga meet, but nobody is paying much attention; we’re watching Todo K in distress, watching as the screen goes up, watching as the last horse on the track this meeting is, as gently as possible, put to sleep. It is immeasurably, nearly unbearably sad.
And so we solemnly leave the Spa, looking back as we go, bidding it farewell. It’s a miserable way to say good-bye, but it would have been melancholy, anyway. Later, we toast and we celebrate and we reminisce…and we start to count. As one friend says as he joins us at the table, “324.” We look at him. He says, “324. 324 days until opening day.”