Thursday, August 31, 2006

Woman has hallowed memories of Saratoga

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, Aug. 13, 2006

The woman was standing by the side of the track, her eyes wet with tears.

She had spoken to a track attendant and solemnly watched him walking away. He strolled back onto the dirt of the racecourse as the machines soothed the aching sod to get it ready for the next race.

A few minutes earlier, the horses had all crossed the finish line, cheered on by thousands who called out their names: Genuine Devotion. Easy Start. Most Beautiful Storm.

Now everything was quiet, a pause between races.

The gamblers shuffled their way to the betting windows. The horses were guided back to the familiarity of their own barns by hot walkers whose names no one will ever know and the jockeys went off to rest before their next mount.

Nearby, the sound of a Dixieland band filled the air, mixing with the smell of fried dough and barbecued pork, as some stopped to marvel at a display of vintage race course photographs.

Others paused to ink their best wishes to a three-foot high greeting card that read, 'Marylou, Saratoga is Thinking of You.'

Nobody was talking about Porco, liquefied bombs, or faraway cities being blasted into dust. Here, life is no more and no less complicated than handicapping the next race and keeping an eye peeled for famous faces.

'We used to come here every year,' said the woman with the tears in her eyes, whose name is Mary Anne Darzentas. 'This is going back to about 1965.'

She would come every year with her husband Nicholas. Later, they started bringing along their children for the ride.

'We have been coming here since we were little kids,' the woman's daughter Demi recalled, while standing alongside the track with her mother and watching the track attendant who had an envelope in his hand.

'When he would win, we would go out to dinner and eat lobster,' Demi remembered. 'When he lost, we would get hot dogs.'

As the years passed and the family grew, the parents began bringing their grandchildren along with them. In April, Nicholas suffered a stroke and died. This summer, Darzentas made the trip from her Florida home to Saratoga alone.

'Forty years we were together. This was his favorite place in the whole world,' she said, watching the attendant standing on the track. She watched as he opened the envelope she had given him, watched as he turned it upside down. She solemnly stood and looked on as the ashes sprinkled out of the envelope and down upon the legendary track.

A few moments later, with wagers placed, everyone was rushing back in to the side of the track. The jockeys mounting their new horses, and thousands cheered the animals on by calling out their names. The happiest were the ones who picked the eventual winner, a horse crossing the finish line that went by the name Miracle Moment.

photo by Thomas Dimopoulos of Funny Cide at Paddock, Saratoga Race Course, 2006.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jerry Bailey Rides Again

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Seven months after calling it quits, Jerry Bailey was back in the saddle again.

The jockey legend surprised a group of onlookers Friday morning at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, when he showed up to take a crack at the latest thoroughbred to call the Spa City home.

This one, as yet un-named, is of the electronic variety. They call it a racing simulator, and as far as anyone knows, it may be the first of its kind in the world.

A day earlier, the interactive race horse was debuted for the media. The idea was that anyone who wanted a chance to see and feel and hear what a jockey experiences during a race was welcomed to go for a ride. Not even the mighty George Plimpton - who weaved his first-person accounts of playing football, hockey and basketball into books like 'Paper Lion' - had attempted such a thing.

With a price tag of about $125,000 and electronically hooked up to a video screen to simulate all the sights and sounds of an actual race, this was as close as possible to the real thing.

At the precise moment riders like Prado, Castellano and Velazquez were readying for battle against one another at the Saratoga Race Course across the street, here at the museum, the jockeys were still in the jockey room, framed by rows of colorful silks and forever immortalized in lifesize figures. With the massive electronic tote board flashing post time and tracking the ever-changing odds, the racing simulator was ready for its first rider.

There are three levels of speed that the rider can choose.
The first two - Warmup and Apprentice - link with the 50-inch video screen to navigate a path across the Oklahoma Training Track, which sits just off Union Avenue, just down the road from the museum.

The third level - called The Jockey - 'races' at a speed of up to 30 miles an hour and takes to the track in an actual race that was filmed with a jockey helmet cam at Hollywood Park.

The person chosen for the initial ride was Jim Tedisco. The assemblyman from Schenectady helped secure a sizeable grant for the simulator, and his efforts were being rewarded with first crack at the electronic thoroughbred. While Tedisco was sizing up the beast, real-life jockey Mike Smith was mounting a horse of his own.

This one was a smaller-sized non-electronic model, called an Equisizer that runs purely on extreme human endurance. After Smith demonstrated the agility and strength that secured the Kentucky Derby atop 50-to-1 long shot Giacomo in 2005, it was the assemblyman's turn to mount the electronic race simulator. He chose the Jockey mode.

'It's a heckuva ride,' offered Tedisco afterwards, stretching his legs and reasonably pleased about the way he handled the two-minute race. There was one small problem however. The thing was broken.

Blame was quickly assigned to some sort of a temporary glitch having to do with electricity and power. But what everyone knew and no one was saying was this: Never, ever let the politicians near the toys.

Less than 24 hours later, the glitch was fixed and the racing simulator ready for riding.

Jerry Bailey, who won 641 races at the racecourse across Union Avenue, was in town for the weekend to broadcast the races on ESPN. A group of museum visitors saw him climb up the podium where the horse was waiting. Just like the old days, they cheered him on.

One foot went in the stirrups. The other went up and over the top of the saddle. His eyes focused with intensity. The veins in his neck bulged with anticipation. Crouching low over the horse's back, Bailey shifted his weight forward just as the startling clamor of bells signaled the opening of the gates. The announcer's voice melted with the moving images. Bailey was back in the race. A roar went up from the crowd.

Just in that moment it was impossible to know whether the voices were coming from the racing simulator or from the happy group of onlookers, simulating the old days and cheering him on.

Words and pictures by Thomas Dimopoulos,
"Bailey tests out new simulator," The Saratogian, Aug. 06, 2006.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Dark Course

"The Dark Years at Saratoga Race Course,"
by: THOMAS DIMOPOULOS, The Saratogian


The two letters that killed the summer of 1943 came on May 26 with the official announcement there would be no racing in the Spa City that year. The ban would eventually be extended to include the summers of '44 and '45, leaving many residents in fear that racing in Saratoga was gone for good.

"At the time, people thought it might never come back," recalled Michael O'Connell, who would later become mayor of the city.
"I was born in 1935, so I was a youngster at the time but I distinctly remember my father sneaking me into the backstretch," he remembered about that summer of '42.
"Kids weren't allowed at the track in those years, so I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm in the forbidden zone.' And I specifically recall my father telling me to take a good look around the race track because it may never return again," O'Connell said.

In the years leading up to the war, the town was booming. It was the era of The Grand Union and United States hotels. The "Chamberlain Special" lumbered up the railroad tracks, bringing racing fans from New York City to Saratoga for the meet. In the summer of 1941, the Saratoga Harness Racing Association opened a track of their own, a hopeful sign of bountiful times ahead, but the dark clouds of war were floating in from across the Atlantic.

By the spring of 1942, sugar, rubber and gasoline were being rationed. In the summer, the War Bond Committee sponsored three booths at the Saratoga Race Course, generating more than $24,000 in bonds and stamp sales for the war effort during the August racing season.
National Rubber Administrator William Jeffers sent off a letter to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey asking for conservation of rubber. Dewey put executive assistant James Hagerty in charge of the matter. Among his recommendations was that the Spa meet be transferred to a metropolitan New York track in 1943.

In Saratoga Springs, a committee was hastily formed that included members of the county Chamber, Mayor Addison Mallery and a band of local citizens led by J.E. Roohan. They devised a plan to organize the city's 13,000 citizens to underwrite the 1943 season by pledging an "amount equal to the purchase of a $25 War Bond" to rescue the season. Despite their efforts, when the "pleasure driving" ban was instituted in Saratoga County in May 1943, it spelled the closing of the racecourse for the summer.

"It was a different town then," said Michael Sweeney, who worked as a water boy at the race course in the 1920s and would later serve as a judge for a quarter century.
"Saratoga needed the summer crowd and it wasn't coming," Sweeney said.

In May 1943, as city residents practiced air raid drills, the announcement came that the upcoming yearling sales in Saratoga were being moved by the Fasig-Tipton Co. to Kentucky. George Bull, president of the Saratoga Association, announced activity at the racecourse in Saratoga would be limited to one thing that summer: gardening. With the Saratoga meet moved downstate, what would have been opening day was a melancholy one in the city.

"Up on Union Avenue the gates are closed and the grandstand quiet," described Saratogian reporter Frederick Eaton, Jr., in his story that ran under the headline: "And They're Off - 180 miles from Saratoga."
Eaton described eerily quiet platforms on what were normally noisy railroad tracks, the absence of the smell of hay and horses, and empty visions along Nelson Avenue where entrepreneurs usually spent the summer hustling parking spaces for a quarter.

More than 1,800 Saratogians served in the armed forces during World War II. There were about 70 of them that didn't come home. Just about the scariest thing for those living in the city with family and friends oversees was seeing the Western Union man coming up the front porch with potentially terrible news.

Those that could afford distraction flocked to The Community or The Congress to escape onto the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart and Lana Turner. And when they weren't collecting cans for war effort salvage drives or taking turns standing atop the Lake Avenue Armory acting as lookouts for enemy planes, they shopped on Broadway at Central Markets, or at the Grand Union, where cold cuts were going for .29 cents a pound. They bought banana cream pies at Thomas' Bakery, their clothes at Laundau's and listened to programs broadcast over WGY radio while sipping on King Orange soda at a nickel a pop.

At the race course downstate, 1943 was becoming the year of Count Fleet. Jockey John Longden rode the colt to victory in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and at Belmont, winning by a record-setting 25 lengths.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, 1943, the 74th Travers was run at Belmont Park. Eurasian took the race by three lengths. George H. Bull presented the trophy to the victors as they stood in the winner's circle at Belmont Park.
While racing fans in the Spa City couldn't actually see the races up close, residents remember they could still play a part in the wagering process. Newspapers listing the upcoming races and bookmakers set up improvised gambling shops out of their cars and in the storefronts along Broadway.

"There were illegal rooms all over downtown," O'Connell said. "There was gambling at the lake houses and in the backrooms of a lot of the newsstands. They were like the original off-track betting places of their time."

History has a vague memory of what went on at the racecourse during the three years it was closed. Some remember Army trucks being brought in and stored beneath the field stand.
"Not only was the track closed down, but it was sealed off and abandoned," O'Connell said. "The general public didn't really know but there were military trucks being stored at the track at the time. There was that secrecy during wartime, but it was being used as a significantly sized storage facility."
It also had become unkempt during the three years it was closed.
No one was maintaining the grass or taming the wild growth of weeds that began springing up on the track.

The first glimmer of hope came in the clamor of church bells which rang out in the city to signal that the war was over. It was the middle of August in 1945, during the third dark Saratoga summer.

A year later, racing returned at 2:30 p.m. on the first Monday in August when 15,168 jammed the roadways and lined up at the entry gates to pay the $1.60 admission for the eight-race card.
It was, at the time, the biggest opening day in Saratoga history and kicked off the four-week season remembered in the newspaper headlines of the day that read, simply, "Back Home Again."

(Photo of Javier Castellano andBernardini in Winner's Circle at Saratoga Race Course after winning Travers Stakes, Aug. 26, 2006 by Thomas Dimopoulos)