Commentary: First Love

By Jeff Deitz

Face it, guys and dolls. We all remember our first time. Mine was unforgettable—Wednesday, Aug. 16, 1972, two months after those five yo-yo’s broke into Watergate, precisely 35 years ago. I was already 23 but hell, it happens when it happens.

8 a.m.: Med school buddy Eddie Gratz and I leave Baltimore for Quebec; just us guys.

Noon: Get on I-87, a straight shot past Albany through Adirondack State Park.

2:15: It dawns on me, right before the funny-looking bridge over the Mohawk River and barge canal, “I might meet her.” There’s a green and white sign: “Saratoga Springs, 32 miles.”

To a Baltimore kid, horse racing is Pimlico, where the backstretch looks like an industrial park. In the winter you drive two hours south to Bowie, where the track’s orange-clay mud looks like what’s on the floor after a fraternity party.

2:45: I see “Saratoga Springs, exits 13-15.” “We gotta stop here. I have to see this,” I tell Eddie. She was legendary—the queen of New York racing. The New York Racing Association: just like the damn Yankees. Their allowance horses ship in and take Pimlico’s features every week.

I make Eddie take exit 13. Past the park, right on Lincoln Avenue, pay to park on somebody’s lawn near Siro’s. Something’s amazing: “She’s so green. No concrete retaining walls, no cracked pavement. How can this be?” Turn right and walk along the fence on the left. On the other side, horses for the fifth are being saddled.

She’s adorned in a garland of red, white, and pink petunias, and wears complexly scented perfume: hay, grass, cigars and cigarettes, smoked barbecue, and horse manure. She costs two bucks. I pay for Eddie.

The Forms are sold out, but one kiosk has programs. Desperate for PPs, I rummage through her trash barrels, finding the jetsam left by a broke punter. To get a better look, I go through the grandstand, mount three steps, and survey her long, dark chocolate-brown, exquisitely manicured outer coat that frames those two luscious inner grass-green layers. In the distance everything is green, even the barns; white, puffy clouds waft lazily across an azure sky above her backstretch. Thousands line the rail, all happy to be with her, not like Pimlico, where you feel you’re on a blind date with someone’s pimply cousin and you slink around hoping no one sees you.

Form in hand, I cheerily handicap the ensuing races, awestruck by the rich purses and the competitors’ class. That’ll make it easier to pick winners, right? Not. It’s just as easy to lose money on expensive horses as on cheap ones. She’s the “Graveyard of Favorites,” I learn that real fast when the selections I plunge on heavily finish up the track while I’m already counting my money. Ouch.

4:00: I cajole Eddie into staying one more race. I grab a beer and head for the paddock. The seventh is the $27,750 Sanford Stakes for 2-year-olds. Imagine, a stakes race on a Wednesday. Knowing she’s bruised me badly, she atones immediately by introducing me to her most handsome son. There he is: number two, wearing those blue and white checkered blinkers. What a sight! I catch his eye, and back he looks. He’s standing there all calm and composed, with his gleaming red coat. I ask him what’s doing. He gazes at me, eyes the horses saddling nearby, and looks up again, snorting derisively. His eyes say “This won’t take long, pal. I only have to put up with these yahoos for a minute and 10 seconds.”

4:25: Big Red loops the field under Turcotte’s hand ride, blowing by like a missile, a Ferrari leaving VW Beetles in its dust. I get fifty bucks back for my double sawbuck, but it feels like a couple of million. It’s my first time, a feeling I never want to forget. And she will forever live on at the heart of that exquisite memory.

It’s 35 years later and, just like my wife, I love her more than the first time we met. We’ll all be together this week.

Red too.

Jeff Deitz is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York and Connecticut who’s working on a novel about horse racing.

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