I usually try to stay away from declaring anything the “best” or “worst” of its kind because invariably it gets me in trouble. Growing up in Brooklyn, I would catch heat for calling Tupac the best rapper of all-time. A native named Biggie Smalls was something of a big deal. I couldn’t argue against the “Notorious B.I.G.,” a local hero whose credentials were indisputably the “best” to anyone who lived in Flatbush or Midwood.
But a decade removed from the experience of visiting Saratoga for the first time, I’d be willing to take on anyone who would dispute that the “Spa” is the greatest racetrack in America. I have only visited the landmark once, but August 11, 2003, left me with more memories than the hundreds of visits I’ve made to other tracks combined.
Just two months shy of my 21st birthday, I’d found myself flipping burgers and making milkshakes for 50-cent tips at Monmouth Park. It wasn’t glamorous but it gave me free access to the track, its sights, sounds, people and endless opportunities to bet. As you might imagine, working that summer job cost me more money than any other gig before or since.
A few days after the Haskell, the maitre d’ in the dining terrace asked me if I’d ever been to Saratoga. Although I could remember sitting in front of a TV with my dad on big race days dating back to the mid-80’s, a trip to Saratoga Springs (3 and a half hours away from our apartment in Brooklyn) was never even discussed. The next question was, “do you want to go to Saratoga?” Of course, I did.
On August 10th, me and the maitre d’, who was a man twice my age (perhaps a little sketchy in retrospect), hit the road and headed up to Saratoga. My initial thought was, “wow, everything is so green here!” Monmouth was, and still remains, a beautiful track but comparing the two visually was like comparing a nice inner city park to a botanical garden.
The visual experience was further heightened by the aromatic sensation of inhaling a mix of freshly cut grass, funnel cake, cigars and horse. It might sound gross but, to me, Saratoga smelled as it looked – absolutely divine.
What stood out most to me that day was the incredible access the general public has to the horses, jockeys and trainers. Unlike Aqueduct, the track I was most familiar with, where the horses are in an enclosed paddock, the horses and the people associated with them pass right by you. As an avid collector of horse “things,” I made the most of this opportunity (see below).
I can remember trembling from nerves and sheer excitement when I saw Pat Day and Jerry Bailey about to walk past me. “C’ccaaan, I have your autograph, sir?,” I asked. Of course, Day and Bailey both obliged. As absurd as it seems that those two guys would’ve made me that nervous when I was 20-years-old, I knew I was in the presence of greatness and that kind of physiological reaction was just unavoidable.
Before going home, we made a final stop at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. I posed for pictures in front of the plaques of jockeys and horses that first sparked my interest in the sport. I read the Sunday Silence plaque and flashed back to watching the 1989 Kentucky Derby with my dad. I wished he was there with me. Although, until this day, my dad isn’t quite as sentimental about racing unless there’s a winning ticket associated with the memory.
Of course, I couldn’t leave the Hall of Fame without another memento. So, on the way out I picked up a “Secretariat, 1973” hoodie, which I still wear. That, in spite of the fact that the pull-string came detached from the hood a long time ago, back when the sweatshirt actually fit me.
As the years have gone by and I reflect on the legends I saw and met at Saratoga, the track and its aura have grown epic in my mind. While I’ve been to Del Mar, and some might argue it’s the most beautiful track in America (I really don’t want to get into that whole East Coast v. West Coast thing again), I cannot think of a single experience at a track that was greater than the one I had as an awkward 20-year-old in Saratoga Springs back in the Summer of 2003.
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