Remembering the Summer of '69

Over the next month I will be waxing nostalgic on occasion, whether racing-oriented or personal. This one is both. Portions of this column I am rehashing from old columns, but most of it new and it is an opportunity to link all the pieces together. Let’s just say it is being done for cathartic reasons at an appropriate time. I likely will be having a new Derby rankings column shortly, but for now this is something I felt compelled to write.

We are about to begin what promises to be the most eerie and surreal Saratoga meet in the track’s long history. That means it’s time to get personal and reminisce about the magical place that has been a state of feeling for more than half a century, 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. But it will be unlike anything experienced before.

So, with Saratoga about to open to empty grandstands, and with Father’s Day just behind us and my daughter’s birthday a month away, bear with me one last time as I embark on another cathartic journey 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 no skills who only graduated high school because they couldn’t wait to get rid of me. 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 when I got my first close-up look at the great Dr. Fager. 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?

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was much smaller and intimate back then, and it didn’t matter that I would spend every morning there looking at the same paintings and trophies over and over. It was a portal to the past; a place of comfort, a sanctuary of sorts. What I remember most were the free color post cards at the front desk of Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. Each day I would take a couple only because they were there and I could.

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. I loved Arts and Letters mainly because he was by Ribot, the sire of Graustark, both of whom stood at my second home, Darby Dan Farm, as did Sword Dancer, the sire of Damascus.

Fred and I couldn’t wait to see Arts and Letters 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 little over 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. Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my illness and wasn’t able to return to the Spa, even if I wanted to.

That August was a wild month in America. The country had been shocked by the brutal Manson murders that claimed the life of actress Sharon Tate. And on Travers weekend on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm a couple of hours from Saratoga, 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 myopic 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, although strangely, the town of Woodstock wasn’t anywhere near the rock festival, which was farther downstate  So on that weekend in New York State, there were two totally different events going on in 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 no doubt 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, with the promise of going into the library to become assistant librarian, a position I never would have known about had I not asked the editor if it was possible to get a copy of Graustark’s past performances. Yes, copy boy was quite a comedown, especially salary-wise, from Wall Street, but it was a steppingstone to the library, where I was the proverbial kid in a candy store, surrounded by horse books and horse photos, and I had a job. My one-time likely path to a destitute existence had taken an unexpected turn.

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.

Somehow, I survived that first meeting and a year later I proposed to her in—of all places—Saratoga, where she was now 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. All because I had taken a lowly job as a copy boy.

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. A few days earlier, she sat on her first horse thanks to Richie Migliore’s fiancé Carmela, who was an assistant to trainer Steve DiMauro. 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.

I still often ask myself how all this happened. Losers like me don’t get the gorgeous girl and have a beautiful, talented daughter and precious grandson and wind up in that same Hall of Fame I had visited so many times nearly half a century earlier. My name still looks so out of place next to the names of the greatest racing writers of all time, many of whom I revered.

Thinking back to that summer of ’69, I still wonder to this day how I got from Battery Park to here. I have no answer, but somehow I did. Perhaps the stars were aligning during that summer, preparing to take me to places that were so far beyond my wildest imagination.

I realize as I conclude this “column” or whatever you wish to call it, that the culprit behind these self-absorbed words of reflection is Saratoga and the spell it still casts over me after 52 years. The days of Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom and Shuvee are long gone, as is the introvert I once was. My wife and daughter and the confidence they instilled in me took care of that. But each year around this time I feel compelled to journey back to the summer of ’69 when I came to the proverbial fork in the road and somehow chose the right one. It was that fork that eventually led me to that hot June afternoon in 1978 when I met that beautiful blonde from Woodstock. To me, it will always be the day I was born.

I can’t help but think of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

Because I have always been bad at making decisions, I have to think that every one was made by my father, who died in 1971, two years after advising me to follow my heart and pursue a career in horse racing, despite my lack of skills. Several months before he died I was made head librarian at the Telegraph, and since then it is my father who has been guiding me every step of the way. It is he who is the universe who conspired to make everything happen. He never met his daughter-in-law or his granddaughter or his great-grandson, and he never did make it to Saratoga to see his son’s name inscribed there.  But it is reassuring to know they are all part of him, just as he has been a part of me.

I am about to come to another fork in the road, but it matters little which one I take, because at the end of each road is my wife, my daughter, and my grandson, and the memory of my father. They have all led me here, and here is far enough.

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