holidays and her birthday approaching, I think of Ma often these days. Ma was
the reason why I got into the sport of horse racing. She was a little crazy and
she loved going to Saratoga, pretending to have old money when she got there.
Why it was important to have old money when I could have blown through a new
fortune just as easy was beyond me. For those August days when we went to the
track in the early 1970’s, she was the Queen of Saratoga. She was the second
coming of Marylou Whitney only Ma had an age appropriate husband.
Ma and Dad went to the track to celebrate their wedding anniversary, which
always happened around the time of the Whitney Handicap. Mom would have us kids
run for the benches in the clubhouse area along the outside rail by the finish
line. It was our job to place newspapers in our seats. A Saratoga tradition
indicating that you are the rightful owner of that seat and beware if someone else sits there. It was ten o’clock in the morning when the gates opened and three hours
away from post time. And I sat there in the hot upstate New York sun and
humidity waiting for Ma to take a walk.
whiskey sour in her hand, we would walk the backyard or picnic area of
Saratoga talking about Count Fleet, Citation, and Native Dancer. She talked of
the present day superstars such as Riva Ridge, Key to the Mint and of course
Secretariat. She spoke of the jockeys that she saw and the jocks that I
followed from the scales at the finish line to the jockey room. Mom spoke of
Eddie Alcaro, Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Belmonte, while I followed Angel Cordero Jr., Ronnie Turcotte, and Braulio Baeza.
They were the stars of my childhood. Angel Cordero could do no wrong in my eyes
and once had me carry his riding crop back to the jockey room for him,
pretending it was too heavy.
Here was the routine that we followed. Mom
wouldn’t go to the bar because a lady in white gloves (which she always wore)
didn’t do such a thing, so she sent my father for her refills. We then went to
the paddock for a look see at her choices, noting that a gray horse, no matter
the odds, would always get her money. After the trip to the paddock, we went to
the windows where she placed her bets. As I got older, I would go to the window
for her. And if she collected, I got a tip. I was big for my age and was collecting
and cashing tickets at 16 for Ma, but don’t tell New York State that.
They were great days. We had Triple Crown
champions, superstars on Time magazine, and Cappy Capossela, the announcer for
the NYRA way back when. Ma loved Cappy because that was her name. She was
called Cappy since she was a little girl way back in the 1920’s. Yes, Ma taught
me a lot about the sport of kings. I’ve seen the sport thrill her and I saw it
break her heart. I saw her cry over victories and I saw her cry over defeats.
She sobbed when we were present on the day that Onion shocked the racing worlds
by beating Secretariat. And she was even worse after the death of Ruffian, who
broke down in a match race against Foolish Pleasure at Belmont in July of 1975.
It sucked the life right out of her. She was never the same after Ruffian.
She was not only a bettor, having an OTB
phone account back in the early days before such things were popular, she was a
fan. She loved, like I do, a horse that can come from behind, and she loved the
Saratoga air and tradition that it presented. I miss those days, and of course
I miss her. But she lives on through me and her love of horse racing hasn’t
died, it’s with me and I’ll carry the torch until I can’t do it anymore. Happy
93rd birthday Ma-wherever you are.