July 20, 2013

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Many understand that when we make a reference to Oaklawn as “Saratoga West," we are bowing to the greatness of the upstate New York track at Saratoga Springs.  As we welcome the annual summertime meet at Saratoga this week, we understand that everyone in racing, not only those of us in Hot Springs, love having the stature of that meet in our sport.

After all, a venture to Saratoga still stands atop the bucket-list wishes of racetrack fans from coast-to-coast.  It even tops the Kentucky Derby.  What I have striven for in my four decades at Oaklawn is to try to at least put us in the conversation about “must see” places in racing. To a certain degree we have succeeded. There are those who think that absent a turf track, Oaklawn is the most likely place to conduct an event like Breeders’ Cup. Oaklawn’s not saying it, but there are fans who wish it were true.

The fact is that Saratoga sits atop the nation’s racetracks in respect and tradition, a spot that the state of New York understands as it works through its many financial and administrative problems.

I remember my own very limited time at Saratoga.  In the early 70s I was employed by the Daily Racing Form and assigned to a little track called Green Mountain in the southwest corner of Vermont. Green Mountain raced at night and took entries in the morning.  It worked out perfectly that I could finish what I needed to do at Green Mountain in the mornings, jump in my car and drive through the back roads, towns named Schuylerville and Schaghticoke, and get to Saratoga in time for the first race.  I would race myself, using various landmarks, so that I could make the trip under one hour.  I could then stay for all the races and be back in time for the evening card at Green Mountain with time to spare.

What happens to one at Saratoga stays in one’s mind many years later.  It’s not necessarily all true, it may have been enhanced over time, but it’s there.  I remember eating dinner after the Travers Stakes, won in 1972 by Key to the Mint, carrying the famed Rokeby Stable colors.  There, sitting next to me was Mary Travers, of the famed group, Peter, Paul and Mary, and whom I was planning on watching in concert a bit later at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.  I asked if she had been approached about making the trophy presentation for the race which bore her name.  She was totally unaware.  Not a racing fan, she was there to perform, which that group did brilliantly while they were at that time at the height of their careers.

I also remember seeing a two-year-old named Secretariat win three races that year.  He won an allowance on opening day over a horse name Russ Miron (never to be heard of again).  Later, he won the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes in spectacular fashion.  In the Sanford there was a Johnny Campo-trained entry running front and Secretariat bulled his way between those two to go on to victory.  He came from well behind to win the Hopeful and built much of his reputation through those Saratoga efforts.

Those were the times when I was falling in love with racing.  I met famed announcer Fred Caposella, who would announce to the pressbox each day on his arrival, “Does anyone want my selections.”  Of course there was just grumbling among the hardened press corps, which included many of the greatest writers to ever cover racing.  I loved being around those people then and I still love it now.

As much as anyone I anticipate the opening of another Saratoga meet.  I love it almost as much as I do the opening here at Oaklawn.  But I’ve given my pounds of sweat and flesh to Oaklawn and it will always be where my heart exists.  But there is a little pitty-pat in my heart when Tom Durkin, a guy who has put real heart into New York racing, asks the crowd to join him in the first call away from the gate at “the Spa.”

Welcome to the 2013 version of Horseracing Heaven.

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