Shortly after booking tickets to my first Kentucky Derby three years ago, I realized, with no small amount of regret, that the first Sunday in May that year was Mother’s Day. Instead of being in Saratoga with my mom that day, I’d be travelling home from Louisville. It didn’t feel the right thing to do, but as she has done too many times to count, she understood.
We’re not together today, either. She’s in Saratoga and I’m in Brooklyn, and this year we can blame the Rangers (trying to keep playoff hopes alive in a Garden game 6 tonight) and something a little more important, which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with sports.
Mama Backstretch – she hates when I refer to her that way – is not exactly what we’d call a huge racing fan. By her own admission, going to the track is not really about the races for her. “I like to bet, and the gambling is fun,” she says. “But going to the track for me is more social than anything else.”
She grew up in an apartment where people went to the races; her father, she tells me, was at Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby in 1941 (this was, I hasten to note, before she was born). She also remembers that he once went to the tracks in California, and that he gave her mother a scarf with all the names of the California tracks on it. “God, I wish I knew where that was,” she said wistfully. (So do I.)
She didn’t go to the races as a child. That started when she met my father. What began as a spectator sport became one of participation after they were married, harness horses, at Yonkers and Roosevelt and Saratoga. “We paid $1600 for our first horse. It raced three times and finished last every time,” she recalls.
Undeterred, they stayed in the game. One night, my mother dreamed three numbers – 2, 7, 8 – and she decided to bet them. Unwilling to spring for the $12 it would have cost to box the triple, she asked her mother to be partners. That winning ticket paid a whopping $4700; the $6 investment netted her $2,350, which was in turn used to pay for a harness horse named Jackpot Chip, the most successful of our family’s racers.
The ownership days ended a long time ago, but our family’s interest in racing didn’t. Not long after we moved to Saratoga, my mother – Ann – started working at the National Racing of Museum; she was there for eight years, serving briefly as director, and she passed on to me her interest in the history of racing, in the great names of the sport’s past. Not infrequently, she will call me to pass on her impressions of a name that she comes across in one of my historical posts.
She doesn’t follow racing particularly closely these days; she’ll place a bet on a big race day, and like so many others, she was captured by the charisma of Zenyatta, stopping her Saturdays to watch the mare’s races. In the summer, she’ll come to the track to hang out with her family in the backyard. Like her daughter, she doesn’t spend much time handicapping, but a couple of summers ago, her R.O.I. crushed all of ours, the result of her wagers on cat horses and the names of family members.
In 2010, she came to the track specifically to see Rachel Alexandra’s Personal Ensign, and it’s become something of a family tradition to watch together, from the roof, the last race of the meeting at our home track.
We’re not celebrating Mother’s Day together today, but later this week, when my racing colleagues are heading south to Baltimore, I’ll be heading north to Saratoga, because 50 years ago this Friday, as Native Dancer was cruising to Preakness victory, my parents were saying “I do” in a little church in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
So Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and here’s to a heck of a celebration this weekend.
A version of this post first appeared in May 2011.