By Terese Karmel
-- Each winter as I watch the icicles hanging off my roof, my thoughts turn to those summer days I spend in Saratoga. Around the end of January, my partner and I start asking ourselves whether we're more than halfway to opening day. Are we on the downside yet? If the answer is "no," a glumness like that of a gray winter day settles over us; if "yes," we know we've gotten over the hump.
In late November, I am cheered by a note from a racing friend in Chicago who writes, "the turkey has been consumed, I put the Christmas lights up...that can mean only one thing: any day now, my check for the Saratoga reserved seats will be in the mail."
Most winter weekends, I am reporting on the University of Connecticut women's basketball team--a talented bunch of Thoroughbreds themselves, but still practitioners of the winter sport. This season when they played Sienna, a small Franciscan school outside of Albany, reading the list of their hometowns of Colonie, Clifton Park, and Troy sent me racing up the Northway, the names of those communities flying by until Exit 14.
Some years, we sneak away in February to remind ourselves that, yes, Saratoga is still there. One year, we came upon a white and red canoe reminding us of Coronado's Quest's thrilling nose victory over Victory Gallop in the 1998 Travers. Nearby, a small flock of geese was penned up, waiting for their infield pond to melt so they could waddle about as the horses strode by.
That day, under a steady sprinkle of flakes, we crossed Union Avenue to find the snow piled so high we could barely make out the words "Historic Saratoga Racecourse, est. 1864." Though it was eerily silent, the shouts of the crossing guards and the sheet hawkers haunted the great entranceway.
But of course, the winter Spa is a different world than the summer Spa where we gather each year to participate in America's greatest sport. And each summer, it seems, something magical happens. One evening it was an impromptu accordion concert by a friend as we sat on the porch of our Victorian bed and breakfast, well into the next day's handicapping. Amidst us was another friend, a young woman who had suffered a catastrophic illness. Stretched out as best she could in her wheelchair, she seemed to find some peace inside her otherwise rebellious body as we sang "Now Is the Hour," our soft chorus floating off the porch and up Union Avenue to the horses at rest in their stalls.
Last summer another song provided the magic. As usual, I was over at the track for the workouts. Mary Ryan was telling the crowd who was on track that morning, "Going the opposite way Richard MIG-liore, Richard MIG-liore. Good morning, Richard...anything today?" Kids were skipping along the tarmac; trainers were in the stands, their watches poised; and the sun, as it only does in Saratoga, was making its way over the far turn, bathing the track in a coral glow.
The buzz of the crowd at breakfast filled the spaces between Ryan's commentary and the sounds of horses breezing through the stretch. Suddenly a deep, loud voice rang out: "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow; there's a bright golden haze on the meadow..." Curious, I descended the stairs to discover a large, elderly man leading everyone in a chorus of the most perfect song, for the most perfect day at the most perfect place. "Everything's goin' my way..." What better sentiment for a game of chance.
I never found out who he was; it really didn't matter. But in reflecting on that morning, I finally understood Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." The joy of being in that place had burst through and perhaps for just once in our lives, we were all experiencing pure happiness.
Another blizzard is pounding New England, but my heart is in upstate New York as I imagine the snow, like a gauze parachute, floating gently down onto the track, covering the great elms of Claire Court, the green wood scratch board, the flower boxes in the winner's circle.
But I must take heart, for with every passing day, we get closer to the downside on that slow, lazy descent into summer, Saratoga, and magic. b Terese Karmel is a Connecticut journalist and college instructor.