It was easy, by the time closing day rolled around, to be weary of the ubiquitous yellow and red logo, easy to be fatigued by endless ceremonies and presentations and proclamations, easy to be ready for the celebrations to come to an end.
Every once in a while, though, during a meeting that despite its length still felt like it ended a little too soon, there were moments when the 150th anniversary felt like more than a marketing mechanism, more than an excuse for local luminaries to seize microphones and photo ops. It felt like what it really is, which is a rather remarkable opportunity to remember, to learn about, and to celebrate the significance and the joy of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.
Those moments came when the course of quotidian duties took me past the old trotting track, over which those first races were run in 1863. They came sitting on the backstretch, listening to Allen Jerkens tell stories about horses who ran 50 years ago. They came in early morning quiet in a deserted clubhouse, the only sounds those of horses’ hooves and breath, in the simple stateliness of those old wooden boxes and rafters in the glow of the rising sun.
At those moments, cynicism had no choice but to retreat in shame, powerless in the face of history and majesty, of a century and a half of endurance, a claim that no other sporting venue, and few institutions of any sort in our country, can make.
Those long days and long weeks tried our patience and stamina; a spate of breakdowns in the last week at the end of a remarkably safe meeting tried our souls and our hearts. Endless uncertainty about the future—for how many summers in a row, now?—nibbled at our pleasure.
Still…what a gift it was to participate in my hometown’s celebration of my favorite place on earth, of the place that makes my heart swell and my eyes fill when I stop and note its stunning vistas. I have many people to thank: Saratoga 150, for asking me to serve on its historical committee; The Saratogian, The Blood-Horse, the Daily Racing Form, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and the New York Racing Association, for opportunities to write about this beautiful place and its sumptuous history; WMHT and Patricia Lane for asking me to play a role in The Track at Saratoga: America’s Greatest Race Course, and Only A Game and Bill Littlefield, for the chance to spend a morning talking about why a Saratoga sesquicentennial matters. Thanks, too, to Capital OTB and Seth Merrow, for asking me to help find guests to tell Saratoga’s stories.
This summer, as I do every year, I saved the program for each of the 40 days of racing. Earlier this week, feeling somewhat foolish, I packed them up, wondering where in a Brooklyn apartment the 2013 collection will go, and why, actually, I bother. Will I ever, I asked myself, look back at them? Are they doing anything more than taking up precious space?
Earlier this summer, in a rare fit of energetic housecleaning, I came across a scrapbook that belonged to my grandparents, my mother’s parents. Her father liked horse racing; he went, he told her, to Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby in 1941, and she knew he went to Saratoga, too.
Turning the pages of the scrapbook, I saw photos of and news clippings about my family from two and three generations back. And then I turned the page, and I saw these:
My mother had never seen them before; they are from before she was born. The photograph has no notes, nothing to identify the horse or the man; the program is the cover only. Even devoid of details, they evoked awe, almost reverence, in every member of my family as we looked at them at our table in the backyard on closing day, one of our family traditions.
We stayed until the last race, on a day that had begun stormy and ended glorious, with late summer sun pouring through the trees and into the paddock, its angle distinctly different from what it was on July 19. And when it was over, it was time to pack up our picnic and nearly seven weeks’ worth of clothing and books and electronics, to load the car and head south…and to start looking for a place to store some programs, from 40 days of Saratoga 150.