It is time once again for the annual pilgrimage to the mecca of racing that makes me briefly forget all the problems the sport is facing and remember the way it used to be.
This year marks my (gulp!) 49th anniversary at Saratoga, so what better time to go down memory lane and rekindle the first of many unforgettable moments that have made Saratoga such a magical place. And that includes proposing to my wife there in 1979 (or was it the other way around as she claims?) when she was working for NYRA as public relations coordinator, celebrating my daughter's first birthday at the Wishing Well, and having my whole family there in 2016 when I was bestowed a racing journalist's greatest honor, election into the Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor at the National Museum of Racing, joining only 15 other writers.
My first visit, for the historic Travers, was in 1968 when I took an Adirondack Trailways bus from New York City and checked into the Victoria Hotel on Broadway, which, of course, is long gone. On its site now stands a Boston Market. Even back then the Victoria was an old hotel with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s. It was aged and pretty modest, and in no way even remotely resembled the Adelphi, the last of the great old hotels, which in turn bore no resemblance to the massive, ostentatious Grand Union and United States Hotels that catered to the opulent and often decadent tastes of America’s tycoons, high rollers, and silver spoon-fed upper crust.
The Grand Union’s dining room seated 1,200 guests. After a night of gambling and drinking at Canfield Casino followed by a breakfast of frog legs and champagne, screens were discreetly put up for patrons who preferred being sick in private. I don’t recall seeing a dining room of any size at the Victoria and the people sitting on the porch were hardly Diamond Jim Brady or Lillian Russell or the Marquis de Lafayette. But for my simple tastes and means my little twin bed was all I needed.
Walking to the track each morning up Lincoln Ave and past Siro’s was like driving down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn with my father as a kid and then seeing the light stanchions of Ebbetts Field in the distance. You felt as if you were approaching hallowed ground. The track had recently begun serving breakfast on the apron porch, where you were greeted by a tuxedo-clad maitre d’. If you didn’t mind that the price of breakfast was outrageous and tips on the races normally were hotter than the food, it was a great experience, with the smell of bacon wafting through the crisp mountain air, the clanging of dishes and silverware, and some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country galloping and working in front of you. Once in a while you’d see a top trainer having breakfast, and you could listen in on Bill Johnson’s Saturday morning radio show at one of the tables.
After training and breakfast, it was off to the National Museum of Racing across the street to watch the crackly, black and white replays of the previous day’s races and a small feature on great stakes of the past preceding it. It was here you saw the only films available of Buckpasser winning the 1966 Travers or the great duel between Jaipur and Ridan in the 1962 running. Most of the films were narrated by the great Chris Schenkel. This was held downstairs (or was it upstairs?) in a small room with folding chairs, an old-fashioned pull-up screen, and a 16mm projector (or was it 8 mm?). Funny how you don’t remember certain little things.
A few days after arriving in Saratoga, I managed to find a shopping center that had a camera store, and bought myself one of those little Kodak Brownie Instamatic cameras, which was considered modern technology back then. I had to capture all these indelible images and the beauty of Saratoga.
My first morning at the track with my new camera, I shot just about everything I saw -- the grandstand, adorned with flowers, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his sons, my hotel, and even the McDonalds across the street, which of course is still there.
Travers morning, a blankel of humidity hung over Saratoga and a thunderstorm was imminent. On the track, horses were winding down their morning's activities, while the patrons in the clubhouse apron dining area were finishing breakfast.
I managed to get shots of trainer Eddie Neloy having breakfast and Johnson interviewing trainer Henry Forrest, who would be saddling the Travers favorite, Forward Pass.
As training hours drew to a close, the skies, which had been clear all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those wild Saratoga thunderstorms was moments away. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, I could hear a faint voice over the public address system announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.”
I could see him emerge from under the grandstand, heading to the gap. There he was, like a heavyweight prizefighter stepping into the ring. He looked like no other horse, seemingly taller than his 16.1-hands frame and with a wild, untamed demeanor about him. Off the track he was a gentle soul who did not like being scolded or yelled at, but on the racetrack he ran with a reckless abandon, bearing more of a resemblance to a mustang running across the Great Plains with his long mane blowing in the wind, a force of unharnessed energy. He detested being whipped and he defied any horse to look him in the eye and still be around at the finish. He could carry staggering weights and still break records repeatedly.
The Doc was coming off a stroll in the park romp in the Whitney under 132 pounds following a pair of epic battles with his arch rival Damascus in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps.
It was the Saturday before the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, in which the Doc would be gunning for the one-mile world record, and on this morning he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.
Just as he made his way on to the track, the skies opened up, as the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. I, however, was not going to blow an opportunity to take a picture of the mighty Dr. Fager, especially with my brand new Kodak Brownie Instamatic.
Everyone headed in one direction and I headed in the opposite direction toward the rail. I got there just as Dr. Fager was walking by accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. The exercise rider, Jose Marrero, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me, as if wondering what kind of idiot would come running out into the pouring rain to take a picture of a horse. But this was no ordinary horse.
Like some majestic shrouded figure, Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wide-eyed 21-year-old, who was floundering about trading over-the-counter stocks on Wall Street and hating it. As the Doc, sporting his figure-8 bridle, walked past me, oblivious to the elements, he had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red. The Doc was in a zone.
I managed to take one shot of him before high-tailing it back under cover. The first person I saw was the Doc’s trainer, John Nerud, who was well-prepared for the weather, decked out in a yellow rain poncho. I went over and called, “John,” and when he looked up and gave me a friendly smile, I took his picture as well.
Through the murk and rain, the good doctor breezed five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from Marrero, who had to weigh close to 160 pounds. A week later, Dr. Fager broke the world record for the mile, winning eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds in one of the most awe-inspiring performances of all time. It would become the most sought after record in racing, and still has not been broken on dirt half a century later.
For years, I have carried that photo of Dr. Fager in my wallet. It was not a very good photo as photos go, but in many ways it was the best I’ve ever taken, with the Doc’s rich blood-bay coat bursting with color even on such a gloomy morning. I still look at that picture and think back to when everything was new – my camera, my first trip to Saratoga, and my newly found obsession with horse racing.
The following year, I left Wall Street and took a job as a copy boy at the old Morning Telegraph. My world and the world of Saratoga and Dr. Fager were now and forever one.