Joys of the 'Big A' - By Bob Summers

(Originally published in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

A while ago I was on a media conference call with trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. when he said something that startled me.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen because in New York they’re talking about closing Aqueduct,” Dutrow said. “And I always want my first string at Aqueduct. That track is so good to train on. I can’t say it enough. If they close that track, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

What? Close Aqueduct?

I couldn’t pay much attention to the rest of the call because Dutrow’s comment had opened the floodgates of my Aqueduct memories.

I don’t remember exactly when I was introduced to the joys of the “Big A,” but it probably came during that wondrous Easter vacation of the year I turned 18. I took the Greyhound bus to Manhattan (a 450-mile ride from my home in Buffalo, N.Y.), got a room at the Sloane House YMCA on 34th Street, and proceeded to fall in love with New York City.

What was not to like? Times Square, 42nd Street and the Empire State Building were all within walking distance. The bars were crowded at 6 a.m. A chain called Nedick’s served the greatest hot dogs and orange drink. I could read any and all of seven daily newspapers, and if I wanted to explore beyond midtown, there was the subway, which went everywhere and cost just 15 cents to ride.

It wasn’t long before I learned that the subway (more specifically, the IND A Train) went directly to Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park, Queens. The track even had its own station.

As a teenager in Buffalo, I had followed Thoroughbred racing at Fort Erie Race Track, across the Niagara River in Canada. To get to the Fort, which I did often, you had to get a ride with somebody, take a bus, hitchhike, ride a bicycle, or walk across the Peace Bridge. It was worth it, but it was an effort.

But in New York City, holy cow, you could get to the race track on a train for three nickels. I have to admit it was one of the reasons I spent two college summers in Manhattan and quickly applied to New York University for graduate school. Even though I moved back to Buffalo years ago, I still play the track at OTB and make regular pilgrimages to the Big A, although I have to admit it is not as attractive as it once was.

But here are some pleasant memories:

  • The anticipation that builds when the subway comes up out of the ground and becomes an elevated train snaking through Queens. Few horseplayers remained in their seats as the train approached the magic stop, where everyone piled out and rushed down the ramp to the admission gates.

  • Steeplechase races. On weekday afternoons. On the inner turf track. Really. I remember them because one weekday I took a date to see them. When we broke up later, she told me she thought I liked the races too much and probably would grow up to be an addict. Imagine!

  • Papers on seats. Another date, now my wife of 41 years, wasn’t as harsh. She said she thought race fans were nice, polite people because you could put a newspaper on your seat and nobody else would sit in it all day. Even on crowded Saturdays when attendance could reach 50,000 people.

  • Fire hydrant. By the finish line. Tell friends you’ll meet them there.

  • Education. It was at Aqueduct that I got into the habit of keeping the Morning Telegraph, even after a losing day, and reading it on the ride home. You know, the writers of the predecessor of the Daily Racing Form knew a lot of good stuff.

  • Soft pretzels. With mustard. Always put money aside to buy one for the subway ride home.

  • Trottah cahs. As in “Trottah cah, here! Getcha trottah cah, here!” That’s what the cab drivers going to the Roosevelt Raceway harness races would yell as the fans left after the last race.

  • Horses. Oh yes, the horses. I saw Buckpasser break his maiden and Damascus win the Wood Memorial, Belmont Stakes and Woodward (beating Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the latter). I saw Gun Bow beat Kelso and vice versa. I saw Northern Dancer lose the Triple Crown to Quadrangle, and I saw, but still can’t believe, that Tasso nipped Storm Cat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I).

Yes, Mr. Dutrow. I agree. If they close that track, I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Bob Summers covers racing for The Buffalo News

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