This is unusual, because horse races are among the most obscure of sports on TV, and I rarely get to see more than the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes). But this year, of course, thanks to COVID-19, sports were kind of shut down -- except for a couple tracks where the managers had their ducks in a row, had quarantined the hell out of everyone, had stringent rules about who could or couldn't set foot on the premises, and so the horse races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and the Tampa Bay Downs were being televised. Run without fans in the stands, but running races nonetheless. I began spending my Saturdays watching horse races.
By the end of April, I'd had about enough of television and internet news. Everything revolved around the corona virus. Close it all down! Open it all up! Make kids go back to school in the summer to catch them up! I have a right to open my business! Masks make you smother! It's a pandemic! It's a hoax! On and on with the self-righteousness and accusations and worldwide protests, why isn't someone saving us from this disease? Why are you making us suffer by 'sheltering in place'? I have a right to party! Don't we have a right to health care?
The race season shifted to Belmont Park in New York, where they put the proper protocols in place to allow racing again. I've always loved the big, sweeping track there, so I began to watch that track on the weekends. Then the reporting team said that when the Belmont meet was done, they were going to Saratoga, and that the channel would carry ALL the Saratoga races.
That was that. I let the family know I was heading off to Saratoga Springs, the oldest and arguably most beautiful track in the USA. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I'd feverishly catch up on all the in-house chores I had to do, and then Wednesday through Sunday mornings, off to Saratoga by 10am and stay there until the last race was done, studying my racing forms, listening to the racetrack team chatter about bloodlines and past performances, history of racing, tack and horseshoes, condition and temperament, jockeys' riding abilities and the strengths and weaknesses of trainers, the hopes of owners, the eerie feeling of the big track without spectators.
I don't have a 'bucket list.' And even if I did, it wouldn't have had on it Go to Saratoga Springs for the Entire Race Meet, because that wouldn't have been possible. I never thought in my life, that I would be able to spend a season at Saratoga. That was a luxury beyond my imagination.
But this summer, I was there. And it was wonderful. I've now done something I never thought I could do.
A stack of racing forms sits beside my work desk, shrouded by a dust cover to keep the ash and harvest dust off it. On the forms are scribbles of notes, names of horse sires circled, names of really proficient jockeys and trainers underlined, what the track was like that day. Maybe this winter, when the rain and wind rattle the door of my garage studio, I'll pull the stack out and look through it, day by day, and remember the shadows of the trees on the track for the late afternoon races, and smile.