Happy Father’s Day

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 Hello Race Fans! one 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 two instances in decades of track-going with him in which any kind of sentimentality has informed his wagering. One of these times was last weekend, when he liked Tonalist but didn’t want to bet against a Triple Crown. I was shocked–not that he liked the winner, but that he didn’t bet it. 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 simulcasting, he calls me: “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 several years 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 race 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

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