Photo: Tony Bada Bing
My father, Joe, is buried in the historic and beautiful Mt. Auburn Cemetery with dignitaries, writers and Bostonian Brahmins. I’m sure there’s a fair share of thieves, reprobates and hustlers, and at least one horseplayer – my father. Along with mature, majestic trees of rare genuses and a tower you can climb to gain 360-degree views of surrounding Boston, there’s a bit of Saratoga's main track.
In the 18 years that have passed since my father died from a hideous disease, pancreatic cancer, I always think of him most when The Spa readies to open its gates for another summertime racing season.
Maybe it’s the summer; a relaxing time, my father, the teacher relished in his 33 years of teaching and coaching in public schools, mostly in the place of his birth, Cambridge, Mass. Maybe it’s my memories of his annual Saratoga trips with his friend, Mike, and the pay phone call he would make asking for my Travers’ pick. But mostly, I think, it’s a longing for something that never was – a Saratoga trip he and I could have taken together.
Why we never made such a trip is puzzling to my adult self. It would seem natural that my love of horse racing, grown out of my father’s, would have brought us together for at least one weekend trip. I know I made the almost 4-hour drive west and north while he was still alive, but for some reason or other it just never happened for us together.
(A video I created about Saratoga and my dad)
A few years after his death, it was with a bit of uneasiness and uncertainty that I went to Saratoga Race Track with more than just my Racing Form and picks for the day, I had a small plastic bag tucked away in my pants pocket. My new wife, someone my dad only met a handful of times, and another couple were with me, but it was just my wife who knew of my plan to gain a few handfuls of rich, heavy soil from the main track.
I’m not sure if she thought I was crazy or just plain stupid. And when I write, she, I mean, the short, stout security woman dressed in a park ranger uniform. It was evident she took her job seriously and appeared to me in that instant that I may have made a mistake approaching her. Positioned in the lane where the paddock leads to the main track, she was the only thing standing between me and my dream of capturing a bit of Saratoga dirt to sprinkle on my father’s grave.
With no horses to guard or bet on, we were both out of place at the race day’s end. I sheepishly said something like, “Excuse me, could I walk onto the track and … ”Before I could even finish, she blurted out, a loud, Bronx, “WHAT!”
I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “I’ve come this far, try again … So I regrouped, saying, “Listen, my dad came to Saratoga my entire childhood. He would call each year asking for my Travers’ pick and sometimes delivered me winnings beyond my wildest dreams and stories that made me dream of Saratoga. He’s dead now. I never made the trip here with him and would like to take some dirt from the track for his grave.”
As I spoke, her, who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are, scowl slowly melted and a smile painted its way across her face. She didn’t even say, “Yes.” She stepped aside, extended her hand.
I floated atop the deep top layer of Earthy loom. I pulled out the small bag and scooped a few handfuls of dirt inside. As I gathered myself, my riches, and started to walk back, I stopped and barely whispered, “Thank you.” She stopped me and asked, “Did you get enough? Do you need more?” A nod was all I could muster. I should have hugged her, but I feared the hug she might give back.
So amongst the trees, the bird songs and the buried bodies below is a little bit of horse racing heaven on Story Street in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Fitting, don’t you think?