Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
Saratoga 2013 is still a week away, yet I find myself missing the meet something awful. My work schedule being what it is these days, I can’t justify getting away to the splendor of the Spa for even a few days, between the dates of Friday, July 19 and Monday, September 2. I’ll pause for the collective “awww” that is now rolling in as the universal reaction to this sad state of affairs.
Don’t cry for me, racefans, for I have Toga’d before, and you know I will Toga again. My love for the place is real and lasting. The sights and the sounds, the smells and the tastes, and most of all, those wonderful horses of Saratoga, have afforded me memories of a lifetime. For this year, I will watch from afar, listen and live vicariously through friends, and fall back into the warm embrace of all those life altering memories. It should be enough to get me through to September the 3rd.
I cannot honestly say when I broke my Saratoga virginity, such is the curse of a racetrack brat, but I do remember being there prior to 1978. That is, however, the season in which the Spa and I forged an unbreakable bond. The numbers 1-9-7-8 implanted in my brain simply because of Affirmed and Alydar. Perhaps many of you remember your years like I do, matching the horses that excelled with each calendar year.
For a nine-year-old racing fanatic, the aptly named Lake Paradise was heaven on earth. It was a beautiful little oasis just off route 9. I speak of it in the past tense, as it has long ago been passed on by time. We had an efficiency apartment overlooking the picture postcard little lake that served as ground zero for what would become the vacation of my childhood. Eight or nine days of swimming, boating, playing pool in the restaurant bar with my brother, a few day trips up to Lake George, and great eating, all surrounded beautifully the real reason we were there.
The Travers of 1978 was a weird one. Affirmed had proven just a little too tough for the talent of Alydar throughout the Triple Crown, but now a few months later, maybe Alydar could reverse all those heartbreaking defeats. He had, after all, been the more impressive of the pair in his Whitney demolition compared with Affirmed’s gutsy win in the Jim Dandy. A packed house made Saratoga a wild place that day, but as fate would have it, the result of the Travers was almost universally unsatisfying. When Affirmed cut off the same move that Alydar had made in the Whitney, in the Travers, he had to come down for his sins. When Alydar recovered to rally for second, the stewards had little choice but to officially end Affirmed’s winning streak over him.
Two days later, it was Waya. The recent French import was poetry in motion, and in the Diana, I fell in love with her. She had shown serious ability in her first few months in America, but on this Monday afternoon at Saratoga, things were different. She rolled form well back on the turn, and powered home an easy winner over an excellent mare named Pearl Necklace and ten others. From there she would move on to have one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen for a female on the turf, and I loved every moment. And oh yes, lest I forget, that Diana performance, in which she ran 1:45 2/5 for the nine furlongs, was a world record.
Our last day at the track on this fantastic trip featured the Hopeful. Back then, pre-Breeders’ Cup, the Hopeful was even more important than it is now. Ever in search for the next big thing, fans at Saratoga were convinced they had found it in a striking chestnut colt named General Assembly. Out of a young sire named Secretariat, General Assembly was the toast of Saratoga, and when he rolled home a dashing winner of the Hopeful, to end a fantastic meet, a mid-season coronation was held in racing circles everywhere. Turns out he loved Saratoga, and there was a better colt in Buddy Delp’s barn, but General Assembly had his day in the sun at the Spa, and he would do so again the following year in the Travers.
I guess at this age we are all at our most impressionable. Memories that stand out during this stage of our development tend to stick out like Mt. Ranier in Suburban Seattle. They shape both who we are and what we love. Saratoga 1978 was all of this for me and more. Maybe I can get away for a day or two this summer after all.