Saratoga Still an Elixir After Half a Century

The older I get the more Oscar Wilde’s words ring true – “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”

In many ways, my mind has not advanced at the same rate as my number of years. The feelings of youth burn just as brightly as they did when I was young. The passion and, in many ways, the naivety I still have when it comes to racing defy the rapidly growing number of candles on my birthday cake…if I had a birthday cake.

What really was an eye opener was the realization that when I tell young people that I saw Secretariat run, and as an adult working in the industry, it would be the same to them as it would have been to me in 1973 had someone told me that they saw Man o’War run. Give or take a couple of years.

As I approach the 50th anniversary of my first visit to Saratoga, I can’t help but think of all the wonderful events in my life that occurred at this magical horse haven in upstate New York, and how after half a century I still feel like a kid whenever I exit the Northway and drive up Union Avenue or South Broadway. The barns on Union Avenue before you get to the track are just as they were back then, and it’s as if you are entering a time portal, flooding your mind with memories of when everything seemed pure and innocent and horses like Dr. Fager and Damascus seemed larger than life. For me, memories of Saratoga transcend Thoroughbred racing and reach deep into the very fabric of my being.

I was a wide-eyed youngster of 21, filled with wonderment, as I stepped off the Adirondack Trailways bus in the parking lot of the Spa City Diner in August of 1968. That was the best the city of Saratoga could come up with for a bus depot. But it was truly a small town back then and just added to the charm.

Although my teenage years were over and I was employed on Wall Street trading over the counter stocks just like an adult, I was still living with my parents and brother in Brooklyn and this was the first time I was away from home by myself. The farthest I had traveled in my life was our previous year's trip to Ackerman's Resort in Mt. Freedom, New Jersey, which seemed like the wilderness to me. Back then, 64th Street was our entire world, our island surrounded by an ocean of unfamiliar blocks and neighborhoods. There was the occasional foray to the P.S. 226 schoolyard to play stickball or softball or to Erasmus Field under the McDonald Avenue el to play tackle football or hardball. With so many friends, and punchball, stickball and ringolevio among the numerous activities to keep us occupied, there was no need to venture off into strange lands.

But then we moved to the Flatlands section of Brooklyn when I was 16. Four years later my world became more and more encompassed by horse racing, and after watching Damascus demolish his opponents by 22 lengths in the slop in the Travers Stakes, the lure of Saratoga became too great, and I packed my bags the following summer and made my first solo trip away from home.

I had found a hotel in Saratoga that seemed conveniently located, but not having a clue where Grossman's Victoria Hotel was, I got in the only cab available, along with several other people.

“Where is everyone going?" the cab driver asked. After taking the roll call he then pulled out of the parking lot on to Broadway, and approximately 20 seconds later, he stopped in front of this old building that looked like a home for senior citizens. Certainly this couldn't be my hotel, I thought, and so quickly. I could have walked it in three minutes.

“Grossman's Victoria,” the cab driver announced. This wasn't what I was expecting. My visions of a luxurious hotel stay evaporated at the sight of the rocking chairs on the front porch and a lobby, with its modest furnishings, that was right out the 1930s. I clearly was not in Brooklyn anymore.

I actually became quite attached to the place, even with its antiquated single beds and old fashioned air conditioner that made a racket when you turned it on. But I was able to pave a path to the racetrack each morning, every step intoxicating. And to this day I still get deep feelings of nostalgia whenever I turn on to Lincoln Avenue and cross Nelson Avenue, pass Siro’s restaurant, and head through the side gate of the track to watch the morning training. Then a stroll through the National Museum of Racing each morning followed by the replays of the previous day’s races shown in black and white from an 8 millimeter projector on a pull up screen.

As if speeding through some time warp, it is now 50 years later, and I am preparing in a week and a half to introduce my 5-month-old grandson to Saratoga, just as I did my 1-year-old daughter 33 years ago.

During those early days in Saratoga, I watched Dr. Fager work out in the rain for the following week’s Washington Park Handicap, saw his baby sister Ta Wee break her maiden, squeezed through the huge crowd around the saddling tree to see racing’s newest superstar Arts and Letters prior to his 10-length romp in the Jim Dandy Stakes, saw the previous year’s media star Canonero II, now owned by King Ranch, finish a distant second to Onion in an allowance race, and stand in stunned silence as Onion upset the mighty Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap.

There were the breakfasts on the apron, with the sounds of dishes and silverware clanging, trainers being interviewed on radio at one of tables, and the smell of bacon wafting throughout the clubhouse. It was during one of these breakfasts that I got my first look at Secretariat, as the promising 2-year-old came charging down the stretch, sounding like a locomotive. Trainers and grooms would sit around the barns on the Oklahoma and main backstretches, telling stories and playing racetrack rummy. The tree-lined Clare Court just off the Nelson Avenue stable gate entrance seemed like a world apart, for many years the home of the Calumet Farm horses and the legendary Allen Jerkens. One of the most popular places at the track was Chicken Sadie’s, located near the jockeys room, where people would line up for her fried chicken and didn’t even mind the flies on the potato salad.

While on the bus heading to Saratoga in 1969, I couldn’t help but notice the exit for Woodstock, never dreaming that one of those attending the rock concert a few miles away was a gorgeous girl with long blonde hair who would one day be my wife.

On one of the drives up to Saratoga I heard on the radio that Elvis Presley had died.

When Joan was hired as the public relations coordinator for NYRA in 1979, I would take the bus up on Friday night, and she would be there waiting. We would then go into the Spa City Diner, where I would have my usual tuna on toast and French fries, and we would catch up on everything and make plans for the future. We spent the entire meet feasting on Mrs. London’s almond croissants.

As the meet neared its conclusion, and with her family coming up to visit, it was a perfect time to get engaged and make the announcement during dinner at the Wishing Well. That evening, Joan and I celebrated with a split of champagne in a quiet spot behind one of the barns at the Saratoga sales pavilion.

On the racing front, was saw General Assembly set a track record in the Travers that would last for 38 years and we visited Affirmed on the Oklahoma backstretch, watching him gallop and stand calmly in his stall, cooling off in front of a large fan. It was Joan who organized “Affirmed Day” at Saratoga, with posters and banners lining Broadway and in shop windows. It culminated with the 1978 Triple Crown winner parading and being honored in the winner’s circle.

The following year, we spent mornings watching Genuine Risk train and almost every evening having dinner at the Ash Grove Inn, located in a farm field just outside of town. Joan was at it again, this time with a first – bringing that year’s U.S.-trained Grand National winner Ben Nevis to a luncheon in his honor on the back lawn of the Reading Room, adjacent to the track. The Reading Room, which has housed numerous horsemen and dignitaries over the years, has a history all its own.

There was a lot of work and planning to be done when we returned home that year, and we were married in September of 1980, eight days after watching Spectacular Bid win the Woodward Stakes in a walkover from Joan’s office directly above the finish line.

In her final year with NYRA, we had the luxury of a swimming pool in the backyard, and I would go for a swim, then walk to the track for a 2-year-old maiden race, and head home and jump back in the pool. It was pure heaven. One morning we awoke at 4:30 a.m. to watch the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana.

Time sped by, and in 1985, we celebrated our daughter Mandy’s first birthday, again at the Wishing Well, compliments of the Migliore family, with whom we were staying. She sat atop her first horse, thanks to Carmela Migliore, who was an assistant to trainer Steve DiMauro, and paid a visit to Filly Triple Crown winner Mom’s Command. Mandy would all but grow up at Saratoga, whether watching the horses train, studying the sales catalogues, or our many visits to the gardens of Yaddo, the idyllic artist’s retreat just up Union Avenue. And there were the days spent antiquing outside Saratoga, where we bought our Saratoga trunk, or walking the trails at the Petrified Gardens.

Saratoga has had tremendous growth in recent years, with condos and hotels sprouting up throughout the town, especially surrounding Broadway, and new restaurants opening every year. But as much as Saratoga has changed, it has in many ways changed very little. It remains a state of feeling; a journey into the past, both of the mind and the spirit.

We gave up hotel stays, mostly at the Ramada Inn in Glens Falls, after becoming close friends with Avi and Rhoda Freedberg, owners of Everything’s Cricket Racing, who have a gorgeous home they built on Fifth Avenue, right on the Oklahoma training track, a stone’s throw from the barns of Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, and Christophe Clement. We thought we had experienced Saratoga in its most pastoral settings, but nothing could compare to sitting on the back porch of the Freedbergs’ home each morning with their Havanese Jose, having coffee, fruit, lox and bagels, whitefish salad, and quiche, reading the Pink Sheets, and saying good morning to D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott and other trainers as they rode past the back gate on their ponies to and from the track.

In recent years, my son-in-law Wes has performed and directed for Saratoga Shakespeare in Congress Park. His performance as Cyrano was nothing short of brilliant. It all culminated two years ago, when I somehow found my own place in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame (Media Roll of Honor) in the presence of family and friends. It was by far the greatest honor of my professional life.

Grossman’s Victoria, the Ash Grove Inn, and the Spa City Diner are long gone. Remaining are the old motels on Broadway, and, of course, the McDonalds that was located across the street from Grossman’s Victoria, which by the way is now a Boston Market. The recently renovated Adelphi is the last of the great hotels. The city has changed dramatically, just as it did with the demise of the Grand Union and United States Hotels, massive structures that sprawled over entire city blocks and catered to the opulent tastes of America’s financial giants and high rollers. Those days of decadence, of frogs legs and champagne at Canfield’s Casino, Diamond Jim Brady, and the many Damon Runyon characters also are relics of the past. The history of Saratoga is now told in the museum inside Canfield’s Casino in Congress Park.

Despite my years and the many special memories accumulated over the past half century, I still look forward to going to Saratoga, as would a young boy going to his first baseball game at Ebbetts Field or being let loose in Goldstein’s toy store on 65th Street in Brooklyn.

So, yes, Oscar Wilde was right, it is not my advanced age that is sad. It is that I am still the same kid I was many years ago. And in my semi-retirement I continue to watch reruns of Leave it to Beaver and Mister Rogers. Some things are difficult to let go, especially if they bring you contentment.

Each visit to Saratoga remains a new memory to cherish, and I hope this is the first of many for my grandson Theo. I realize that as long as I live, I will always be that 21-year-old wide-eyed kid stepping off the bus in the Spa City Diner parking lot for the first time and beginning a new adventure in a world that, like Brigadoon, will never cease to be mystical and unchanged. It is a place where I, to quote Bob Dylan, remain forever young

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