Hine Sight

By Victor E. Zast -- There are more motels than trees in Saratoga Springs. But it doesn't seem that way when you're looking for one with a room to rent in August.

None is worth the price you pay for it. But then what is when the rules of supply and demand apply?

When I was a kid in college I used to stay for free in a room on the golf course. The broken-down hut was right off the service road that runs to the Gideon-Putnam Hotel. Screen doors kept the flies out but not the strangers. You wouldn't rest your dog there, much less a migrant worker, but that's what the room was used for.

My all-time favorite room in Saratoga was one in which my bride and I stayed 30 years ago. Mrs. Steele's was a row of cabins hard by the side of a whistling highway. This one I paid for, and dearly. With rain beating steadily on the roof, we created the next great racing fan. What followed love was not a cigarette but a reading of the Daily Racing Form. The life of my son began in this room the night before the immortal Secretariat ran in the Whitney.

Three kids later, we'd rent two rooms at the Sheraton Hotel at the north end of Broadway. The Sheraton still stands there but its visitors know it by another name. The Prime Hotel has 320 beds and plenty of meeting space. The lobby echoes with the sound of your footsteps and the rooms are spartan, yet the property plays host to a gun collectors' show in the peak of the racing season.

We met Carolyn and Sonny Hine there one August. They were sitting alone on a couple of lawn chairs at the back where the bellhops greet visitors. Sonny was wearing a squared-off shirt that he wore out of his pants like a barber. Carolyn had that shock of red wispy hair and dark-colored glasses to shade the sweet smile of her eyes. They were passing the time and making small talk.

Sonny had waited a long, long time to have his "Horse of the Year," and now all he had was a stable of eight common runners under his care. "One day you go to the donut shop and they tell you that you get the senior discount," he explained to Richard Bomze in an interview. The Hines knew a lot about life and how to live it. Yet horses, and each other, were all that they ever had.

Meanwhile other guests were leaving by the front door to slip into limousines. I think Sonny had worked for some of them--probably made some of them a fortune. It reminded me of my teenage years when we flirted with the willing daughters of the rich and privileged during the afternoons, only to be snubbed by them in the evenings.

That neither the Hines nor we were invited to their fancy party was all that we had in common, but enough. Carolyn was charming and asked the right questions and showed her interest. Sonny stuck to the horses, then told us that he spoke Chinese. It was an evening far better than one of having your toes stepped on on the dance floor.

My children have grown but they gather in Saratoga each August and join me where the fun of the sport is more than the gambling. We run into Carolyn Hine at all the big racing events, and she's always as gracious to us as ever, even though I doubt she remembers the night when we met. Little did she realize then that this week her beloved horseman would be feted. Little did I know then that my family and I were spending a perfect summer night with someone so truly deserving of recognition.

There will be a reception in Sonny's honor hosted by the Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. I think Sonny would have looked out of place among the stiff-collared champagne sippers who will be toasting him, but who's to say? Carolyn does fine in any company, or at any motel, for that matter, even ours. When people like her disappear from the racing game, there'll be plenty of rooms to be had in Saratoga.

Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.