Why We Love This Game
Written by Dan Montesano
August 12, 2015
About a minute after American Pharoah crossed the finish line at Belmont back in June, I dug my hand into my pants pocket and pulled out my phone and saw I had a text. It was from my dad. It simply read, “He left no doubt.” I stood on the rooftop deck of the Meadowlands Racetrack and watched the crowd. It was sunny and windy and the air was getting cooler. A few grown men in suits flung their fedoras in the air and hugged each other. Cigars were lit. A DJ started playing. It was a celebration that been planned for 37 years.
But I kept thinking about my dad. I thought about the first time he took me to the track as a kid. It was right here, at the old Meadowlands, where he taught me to read a program. That first night we watched and bet on the live harness racing. I even remember him giving me $40 in cash to bet. I ended up hitting an exacta that night but I can’t remember for how much. Over the years, my dad and I would go to the track occasionally, always without my mom. It was our thing.
He would tell me stories about when he was younger, when he and his buddies would spend the afternoon at Aqueduct and then hustle over to the Meadowlands at night for the harness racing. About how it was so crowded back then you needed to get in the betting line right after each race just to get the next bet in; about the 1978 Triple Crown and the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar; about how he bet Alydar in each leg, convinced Alydar would eventually win.
Like a lot of fathers and sons, my dad and I connected through sports. It wasn’t that we couldn’t talk about anything else, but talking about sports was easy and natural and the words flowed. We hadn’t been to the track together in a while. But a few weeks ago when my dad asked if I wanted to head up to Saratoga for opening weekend, I said I would be there. It would be our first time going to Saratoga together. I’m not sure why it took so long for us to make it there together, but it didn’t matter. We were going now.
On Saturday morning, the sun was yellow and warm and we walked through the gates and waited at the ticket window for a couple of seats in the grandstand. It was two hours before the first post, we bought our programs and walked the grounds. I had looked at the card briefly the night before, but I wanted the chance to sit and study before the races started. I wanted to show my dad I was a decent handicapper, the way sons always want to prove something to their fathers.
But walking the grounds – past the tents selling framed photographs and artwork of Saratoga history, through the picnic area filled with families who marked their spots with beach chairs and white coolers, the candy-striped awning on the roof, down to the empty winner’s circle, the program in my hand mattered a little less.
Saratoga has a mystical quality to it, a presence you can almost feel. A cathedral that traps time and history inside its gates. You can see the stillness of the early morning fog that shrouds the training grounds. You can sense the ghosts of past champions. You can almost still hear Tom Durkin’s booming voice.
We made our way to our seats as post time drew near, my dad and I each liked the #9, Realm in the first race, and my dad played a Pick 3 with Realm in the opener. When Realm came striding down the stretch at 11-1, dad and I rose from our seats and started slapping our programs. “Get up with this 9!,” I yelled into the woman’s ear sitting in the row in front of me. She looked up at me and laughed and gave me a high-five when Realm dug in and won. My dad hit the second leg with English Minister and was live to the two favorites going into the third. He was looking at a payout of a few hundred dollars with each of his horses so the excitement began to grow a little with each passing minute until post. When longshot Site Read cleared the field down the stretch, my dad’s Pick-3 ticket was now confetti.
Later, my mom called and asked how we did and if we lost money. My dad answered, “Of course we did, it’s the track.” We struggled to cash another ticket for most of the day. But it didn’t matter. It isn’t what I’ll remember.
We thank Dan for sharing his story on DanonymousRacing.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @Dan_Montesano17.