Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer of 1974

The summer of 1974 stands out in my mind, mostly because of the days I spent in Saratoga at the famed racetrack. I was sixteen and the first part of the summer was spent at driver’s ed., where I did my best not to cause any angina among the various shop teachers who were earning extra money putting their lives on the line with a bunch of neophyte drivers.. A few odd jobs painting houses and such gave me a bit of money to waste at the track when it opened in August.

In those days the meet was only four weeks, but it had already started to take on the aura of prestige and celebrity it currently enjoys. Its legend as the graveyard of favorites had been reinforced the previous year as the great Secretariat, fresh from his smashing Triple Crown performance went down to ignominious defeat at the hands of the unheralded Onion, appropriately trained by the giant killer Allen Jerkens.

But, it was now a year later and the track beckoned again. Even though I had gone through driver’s ed I still didn’t have my license so transport to the track became problematical. When I couldn’t bum a ride from any local acquaintance I would walk over to Route 50, stick out my thumb and hope for the best. I usually started at a about 11:00 am, allowing myself plenty of time to make it by post time at 1:00.

Of course sometimes I was picked up very quickly and arrived very early, with an hour or more to kill before the first race. I took full advantage of these times to visit the local attractions or have lunch somewhere on Broadway. My favorite ways to pass the time, however, were either going to the National Museum of Racing or walking through the Rose Garden at the Yaddo.

The museum was almost always empty when I went. I would walk into a dark entry and as soon as the lone woman saw that she had a customer the lights would go on and I would wander through the rooms, perusing the paintings of famous horses, looking at famous silks and just enjoying the history that was recorded. The previous year I had written my term paper for Frank Palmer’s tenth grade Social Studies class on the history of thoroughbred horse racing, most of the details elegantly plucked from the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The history I had actually learned seemed to come alive in the sculptures and paintings in that museum.

My other favorite attraction was the Yaddo. This is a mansion that had been built by financier Spencer Trask and, in 1900 was converted into an artist’s retreat. The very impressive mansion was off limits to visitors, but anyone could walk through the Rose Garden which was situated a short walk from the road and, besides providing a very peaceful way to kill time, also allowed me to speculate on what it was like inside the home and at times made me wish that I was a starving artist, just so I could go inside.

The main focus of those excursions to Saratoga was the racetrack. My interest in horse racing started at age nine when I won $4.20 on the first wager I’d ever made, hooking me with the delusion that I could actually generate some sort of profit from being smart, at least smart enough to pick a few winners. So, the money I earned from various odd jobs went straight to my pool of cash designated for the track.

The track that year had a few highlights. The first memorable occurrence was Maria Isabel. She was not a person; she was a filly running in the ninth race one day. She stands out for two reasons: she was the single best bet I’ve ever seen in any race, at any track, in any year since I started betting on horses and I made the largest wager on her I’d ever made up until that time. Anyone not familiar with the intricacies of handicapping the races may not appreciate what she was, but based on her past performances and conditioning she appeared to be at least five lengths faster than any of her competitors. Her times were about a second faster, she was running at her optimum distance, she had just run a credible race against better horses five days before and she was going off at 7/2, an excellent price for a horse that looked so outstanding on paper.

Seeing her in person did nothing to shake my confidence, so I bet $15 to win on her, a huge amount of money for me in those days. The race went exactly as expected, even though in midstretch she was briefly blocked. She found a hole to sneak through, however, and won going away by three lengths. I remember my hand shaking a bit as I cashed my tickets and I felt a bit of trepidation as I contemplated hitchhiking home with what seemed to me to be a lot of money in my pocket. One of the memorable things about that day was that I had a hard time finding a ride. As it turned out I did a lot more hiking than hitching and didn’t walk through our kitchen door until about ten pm. That single bet is so memorable that Maria Isabel is mentioned as a best bet of the week in my novel “Joshua and Aaron”.

The most memorable thing about the track that summer was Ruffian. Anyone that has read my books or visited my website knows of her significance. She was a two year old in 1974 and was the most impressive, overpowering filly the racing world had seen, perhaps ever. The tone for her career was set by her maiden victory by fifteen lengths, running 5 ½ furlongs in 1:03, equaling the track record at Belmont Park. She was coming to Saratoga undefeated and never headed (that is she had never been in second place at any point of any race).

She was running in the Spinaway Stakes against a local favorite, Laughing Bridge, who was owned by local businessman Neil Hellman. Laughing Bridge had been very imposing in stakes races earlier in the meet and their showdown received much hype in the local papers.

I convinced my mother to let me drive up to the track that day, with an older friend accompanying me to make it legal. The day was a bit showery, but the track was labeled as fast. When we saw Ruffian in the paddock my friend and I were both struck by her appearance. She was big for a two year old filly, but she also was a bit washy (sweaty), perhaps appropriate for the humid day, but it seemed to be more sweat than I would have expected.

Ruffian was the overwhelming favorite despite all the attempts by the local media to build up Laughing Bridge. In typical Ruffian fashion she jumped to the early lead, passing the quarter in a quick 22 1/5 seconds. She maintained her lead at the half in a quicker 44 4/5 and at the top of the stretch showed me something that impressed me more than any horse I’d ever seen. As if she were toying with her valiant competition up to that point and she decided it was time to put all the false media hype to rest and she proceeded to run away from her overmatched competition. She pulled away by almost thirteen lengths in the dazzling time of 1:08 3/5, which equaled a long standing track record; remarkable for a two year old filly.

Of course Ruffian’s racing career became legend and her end was tragic, as she broke down during her match race against the top 3 y-o colt Foolish Pleasure the following year and she had to be destroyed. Still, her brief racing career captured the imagination of millions and, for a short time, she became a symbol for women’s rights.

After that summer, I don’t think I ever hitchhiked again. My wife still thinks I was crazy for doing it, but those were different times; sometimes it seems like a different world. I don’t make it to upstate New York during racing season very often these days and the times I have gone to the track it’s not the same. There are no more free seats at the top of the stretch, the crowds are overwhelming and the quality of the racing seems to have diminished. Still, the summer of 1974 remains a fond memory; a reminder that summer days could be carefree and the only worry was how to get home from the track.