The Summer of '69

I hate getting personal, but somehow I am unable to avoid it when thinking, talking, and writing about Saratoga. It has been a state of feeling for 45 years, a place around which my entire life has revolved, and now it is time yet again for my annual pilgrimage to this Mecca of Thoroughbred racing.

So, bear with me as I embark on another cathartic moment and think back to when it all began.

It was a glorious summer, the summer of 1969. My life was at a crossroads as I neared eight months of unemployment. My Wall Street career was over by design, in good part to a total disdain of anything that had to do with stocks, bonds, selling, buying, and cursing out people on the other end of the phone; a practice drilled into you by your superiors.

So, there I sat each day in Battery Park in lower Manhattan, feeding the pigeons and reading Sam Toperoff’s addictive book “Crazy Over Horses,” which became my bible, and trying to imagine what sort of career awaited a Wall Street reject with the skills of a hamster. I pretty much was a loner and the prospects of one day living in a cardboard box on 10th Avenue seemed all too real.

But it was summer, and that meant a trip to my newly discovered wonderland, better known as Saratoga, which had become the most special place on Earth since my first visit a year earlier. My favorite horse, Arts and Letters, was the overwhelming choice for the Jim Dandy and Travers, and my favorite filly, Gallant Bloom, was racking up victory after victory.

Job or no job, I had Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom, and Shuvee and Gamely and Dr. Fager’s kid sister Ta Wee, and, yes, Saratoga and the old Victoria Hotel on Broadway, and walks up Lincoln Avenue every morning to indulge on a steady diet of workouts and scrambled eggs and bacon on the track apron. I had the Pink Sheets and daily films and replays at the National Museum of Racing, and fried chicken and potato salad from Chicken Sadie, whose small stand was located just off the jocks room. Not even the flies all over the potato salad bothered me. Why should it? It was the summer of ’69, I was in Saratoga, and my future could wait. What better place to put your life on hold than glorious Saratoga, where the rest of the world seemed so distant and removed?

My friend Fred and I took the Trailways bus up to Saratoga for the second weekend of the four-week meet. That meant the Jim Dandy Stakes on Friday and the Alabama on Saturday. Arts and Letters, following his two narrow defeats at the hands of Majestic Prince in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and runaway victories in the Met Mile against older horses and the Belmont Stakes, getting his revenge on Majestic Prince, was now America’s equine hero.

To me, he was a welcome successor to my beloved Damascus, the horse who started me off on this journey of adventure into a new and wondrous world.

Fred and I couldn’t wait to see the son of Ribot return in the Jim Dandy, which amazingly was run only eight days before the Travers. Watching the fans line up four and five deep around Arts and Letters’ saddling tree in the backyard made me realize just how popular the colt had become. The crowd let out a roar as Arts and Letters drew off in the stretch to win by 10 lengths. There was no doubt now that a star was born.

The next morning I woke up on my little single bed with the air conditioner blowing right on my head and feet. I took one swallow and realized I was in big trouble. My sore throat eventually turned into something bigger and I barely made it through the morning’s activities before coming to the realization that I needed to take the next bus back to New York City, which meant missing seeing Shuvee in the Alabama. My father picked me up at the Port Authority bus terminal and drove me home and right to bed.

Although I hated not seeing Shuvee win the Alabama, which Gallant Bloom skipped, I was too sick to fret over it and was still on an Arts and Letters high.

One week later, it was Travers day, where Arts and Letters, coming back in a week, would be the overwhelming favorite over Claiborne Farm’s stretch-running Dike. He would continue his dominance, beating Dike by 6 1/2 lengths, equaling the track record.

Not far from Saratoga that weekend, on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm, there was a little four-day party going on that was known simply as Woodstock. The country and its culture was about to change forever.

But my mind was on the Travers and Arts and Letters, and the tiny town under the elms. The closest I got to Woodstock was seeing the exit sign from the bus on the New York Thruway heading up to Saratoga. Two totally different events; two totally different worlds.

Little could I have known that those two worlds would one day be linked and that the wheels soon would be in motion, guiding me to a future I could never have envisioned, even in my wildest dreams.

At Woodstock that weekend with her boyfriend was a beautiful, long-haired blonde from New London, Conn. who fit right in with the flower children that took over Yasgur’s farm in droves; the type of girl who was well beyond my scope and would make me tongue-tied in her presence.

Two months after the Travers and Woodstock I was hired as a copy boy at the Morning Telegraph, which was the Eastern and main edition of the Daily Racing Form.

Nine years later, having begun to do freelance writing for several European publications, I met that beautiful, long-haired blonde from Woodstock, who was working for the public relations firm that handled the New York Racing Association. After months of talking on the phone, we had lunch in Manhattan, where I, yes, became tongue-tied and could only muster a few frivolous sentences, such as, “How many floors in your apartment building?”

Somehow, I survived that first meeting and a year later I proposed to her in--of all places--Saratoga, where she was working as public relations coordinator for NYRA. That night we broke the news to her family at the Wishing Well restaurant. The following year we were married in New London.

Four years later, we had the most wonderful daughter any couple could ever hope for. Mandy would celebrate her first birthday as guests of the Migliore family at the Wishing Well, continuing the Saratoga legacy. Family trips to the Spa followed almost every year, and as a teenager, Mandy took a two-week intensive with the Briansky Ballet in Saratoga. On Aug. 1, the day before the Whitney, Mandy and her fiancé will be moving to Albany, just a stone's throw from Saratoga. Ah, Saratoga in the fall and winter.

I still often ask myself how all this happened. Nerds like me don’t get the gorgeous girl and have a beautiful, talented daughter. But somehow, this nerd did. Perhaps the stars were aligning during that summer of ’69, leading me, ultimately, to this precise moment, sitting at my desk at home the day before Saratoga opening day and not giving a hoot whether I look like a fool for writing this self-absorbed probe into my own psyche and path in life, as if anybody cares.

I realize as I conclude this “column” or whatever you wish to call it, that the culprit behind these words is Saratoga and the spell it still casts over me after 45 years. The days of Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom and Shuvee are long gone, as is the introvert I once was. But each year around this time I feel compelled to journey back to the summer of ’69 when, in many ways, my life actually began.

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