By Victor E. Zast
Morning begins with the hoofbeats of horses. An inquisitive 2-year-old, out for the first time in the Adirondack dawn, peers over the landscape. He breathes in the crisp northern air, paws the fresh dirt beneath his feet, and feels the hands of his rider urging him to run. The horizon reveals a promise of eternity. A veil of haze filters the warmth of the sun and swathes a rounded ridge of mountains in the gray darkness of distance. Its coolness invigorates the young colt and piques his interest in traveling the long stretch of flat brown earth that leads to evergreen.
I began going to Saratoga as a college student. I used to bunk with a friend at the Gideon Putnam Hotel. Well, not exactly the Gideon Putnam. My bed was a cot in a row of rooms which was built at the edge of the hotel property for the transient workers. My roommate and I would start each day at the rail of the Oklahoma training track, then end the day on the 11th tee, under a cluster of lodgepole pines that shelters the tee of the par 3, reminiscing over the races we'd won that afternoon. Admission to the races came to me on the wheels of an ambulance. I'd slip under the cargo of blankets as another friend drove the vehicle past the Pinkertons.
Today, nearly 40 years later, I still eat breakfast at the track kitchen, not at Mrs. London's. My family rents a modest four-bedroom home within the sound of the yearlings whinnying in their barns. The owner is as fastidious as a nun. Upon entering his home, it seems as though no one has ever lived here. But you can tell that he has by the photos on the walls. They are colorful portrayals of flat-bellied grown up boys skiing, golfing, and hoisting beers at The Parting Glass, and pictures of hard-bodied women with big toothy smiles draped on their arms like prizes.
The drive from Chicago is a blur. At a point 30 miles west of Cleveland, you begin to see the topography change. Here is where the deciduous forest of the Appalachian chain meets the heartland. Travelers heading north from Florida, Kentucky, and New Jersey must have their own demarking line. The difference marks more than a passage into new geography.
Saratoga is a state of mind. It can cause intoxication or delirium. Why else would a person stand in line to collect a $2 trinket, an umbrella made in Taiwan, or a flimsy T-shirt emblazoned with ordinary art, then "spin" through the line again and again to stockpile a supply? Nowhere, not even in the Bluegrass where horses are a business, is the sport of racing so elevated and the desire for being part of history so exalted.
People pour into town like locusts swarming on a ripened field. The hotels hum with horse talk. The restaurants teem with hungry patrons. Not restaurants which you'd find anywhere, mind you, but the natural descendants of places like Villa Balsamo, buried so deep in the woods that only the insiders would know of it, or Spuyten Duyvil, hidden from the hysteria by the sheer smallness of it, where once I saw a man do a tap dance on the wall while standing on his hands.
The incongruity may be what fascinates me. Saratoga pretends to be old and dresses that way, yet the cornerstone of its character is hope. In particular, the track is an institution that has managed its countless iterations without apparent notice of the myopic hoards. Maybe it was better when the horses were saddled where you could see them up close. Maybe the quality of racing was greater with 24 days of competition. Who's to say? We see the past more clearly through a prism, yet choose to do otherwise. To tell the truth, there weren't many things that were better then. The Saratoga of today is as good as it gets.
It takes less than a couple of minutes for the colt to complete his exercise. The sweat pours from his flanks. He is breathing hard. Fatigue overwhelms his body, but his proud head seeks the adulation of those observing him. He is a handsome chestnut colt with a white blaze beginning between his eyes and moving down his face to below his left nostril. He seems to have caught the attention of everyone, especially me. I want to own him, at least in memory. But he is taken away before I grasp his entire beauty.