Apr 22, 2008

Saratoga Racing Observations, Part I

Confessions of a former teenage track rat

As a kid growing up in Saratoga Springs, that city’s annual thoroughbred racing meet was the highlight of the year for myself and for many of my local pals. Horse racing was our very own major league sport; a staging of the very best in the world for what seemed like our very own up close & personal viewing pleasure.

The love of this sport was bred into us back in the day. Our parents and grandparents would regale us with epic tales of witnessing Man O War, Seabiscuit or Dr Fager on the track and of storybook-like characters roaming around Broadway or the lake casinos after. They actually lived it during the days of grandeur and it hooked even a bunch of middle class kids that were in the midst of the rock & roll era’s Wonder Years.

We’d all beg our father into taking us to this magical place we would only see on the evening news until he finally gave in on a magical Saturday afternoon that most of us still recall as of it were yesterday. Walking into the track for the first time is much like walking into your first major league ballpark –to us, anyways.

That’s because we were all instantly hooked by everything that is right about the sport: the brilliantly green pastoral setting of the infield; the natural beauty of the magnificent beasts themselves; the flashing speed of the brightly colored silks; and the excitement of the crowd’s roar as the contest makes it’s way down the homestretch. I can still mentally replay the very first race I ever saw, with my CV Whitney-owned pick rallying for third and rewarding me with 30 cents for a $2 show wager I shared with my father. I still have the program from that day.

After that experience, August couldn’t come fast enough each and every year. My buddies all went through the same thing and all caught the same bug. We would compare notes in school as we waited for the calendar pages to turn. Our teachers, many of whom were recent arrivals to the Spa city, would marvel at the sight of sixth graders capable of dissect the Morning Telegraph (now Racing form) at an expert level and carry on a conversation filled with racetrack lingo that must have sounded like a foreign language to them.

The two or three Saturdays that we would all be taken to the races (there was no Sunday racing way back then) under parental supervision became the season’s preferred weekend of choice. Being a young lad with very empty pockets, the financial aspects of this new hobby (i.e., pari mutual wagering) became a challenge, soon solved by – what else – selling racing forms in front of a morning breakfast shop!

Eventually, the track thing became a venture amongst peers. After all, they also ran races during mid-week and the adults all seemed to have that nagging problem called jobs standing in the way of getting us to Union Avenue for these sessions. So we started the weaning process and would head over to the track as packs of bike-riding kids.

Technically, minors were not allowed entry unless accompanied by an adult, hence our first problem that needed solving. The magic solution came by means of somebody’s older brother (he was must have been a football player or bodybuilder) who went about bending one of the posts that made up the iron wrought gate on Union Ave. He bent it (I assume he was aided by some sort of tool) in such a way that an in-shape teenager could slip through, thereby putting him in a position to simply jump another smaller fence at the top of the stretch to gain free admission. This $2 savings would finance our daily doubles. I’ve often wondered if this bent post is still there in the same shape as then.

Once inside, we would proceed to a certain section of the grandstand aisles and convene with a horde of familiar faces. There were probably about 100 or so of us that used this area as our base camp for many years – on any given day there would be anywhere from 20 to 50 of us reporting for duty. From that vantage point we witnessed many great moments in the sport’s history; always surrounded by friends.

Betting on the races became the second problem to solve. Again, minors cannot legally wager. So we could be seen asking complete strangers to place our bets for us in the betting lines, almost always without complications in a much more hassle-free era. If someone got caught today placing a bet for a kid, he’d likely end up on child abuse registries.

As we got into our high school years, we were presented with a third major challenge, one which is common to all American teenagers: how do we get some beer and where do we get the money for it? Creativity once again came to the rescue.

One of our older friends landed a job at one of the concession stands. That takes care of one-half of the issue: as long as we stood in his line, we were assured of not being asked for age-proving ID’s. Next up was solving the ‘money’ issue. After all, these things went for a buck and a half back then.

Our gainfully employed buddy had an observation, which lead to an idea. The observation was that the “accounting” at the beer stands was done on a ‘per-cup’ basis: the supervisor would take an inventory, and determine the number of cups that were missing. He would multiply that number by $1.25, and that’s what he expected to see in the cash drawer at 6PM.

“So, all you guys have to do is buy just the very first cup of beer from me each day,” he concluded. “From that point on, just walk up with the original empty cup and I will fill it at no charge. They’ll never notice it”

Absolutely brilliant, and it worked to perfection. A half-dozen of us would each chip in a quarter and go about that first purchase of a super-large cup of Schaffer Beer early in the day. We’d pass it around amongst ourselves, with the rule being that whoever took the last gulp had to go back up and get the refill. All day long this cycle would repeat. We must have cost Harry M Stevens Company thousands of dollars over the lifespan of using that little trick.

These were glorious times on a personal level. Not only did I have a front row seat for some of the great names in horse racing --- such as Cordero; Shoemaker; Secretariat; Affirmed & Alydar; and Ruffian --- but I got to enjoy it in the company of my buddies.

And that, my friends, is better than hitting a million-dollar Pick 6.

.......Tix On Sale for Two Major Shows at The Parting Glass......

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