The last race I covered at Saratoga Race Course was a dead heat in the Amsterdam between Mint and Secret Firm. It was 1998, and three days later I started a job as a staff writer at Thoroughbred Times.
Been back to my hometown of Saratoga plenty of times since, even for some work-related duties. Sales coverage. Jockey Club Round Table Conference. Interviews. Saw a lot of good races, but didn't write a word about them, something ST's Sean Clancy used to point out as a bad thing. He'd shake his head and ask, "You doing any writing or just editing?"
The day after the Amsterdam I packed up my new Honda Civic, bought just a few days earlier to replace an old Mercury Cougar inherited from my father that replaced my favorite ride of all time, a 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger with a Slant-6 engine (how vintage would that ride be today?). I heard on the way out of town that Julie Krone won the Whitney on Tale of the Cat. That's a good story, I thought, too bad I missed that one.
Drove through the night that day, getting to Lexington late enough in the morning to check out a few places to live (actually wound up renting the first one I looked at), watch Coronado's Quest hold off Victory Gallop to win the Haskell Invitational via simulcast at Keeneland Race Course, and crash hard after checking in at the Spring's Inn on Harrodsburg Road.
Looking back now I see how things are different in Lexington.
The first place I lived, no need to name names, is nowhere near as nice now.
Coronado's Quest and Victory Gallop, whose Haskell was just a preview for the Travers a few weeks later (another race I watched at Keeneland), started their stud careers in Central Kentucky but are now standing in Japan and Turkey, respectively.
I don't go to Keeneland much in the offseason to watch races, who needs to with an ADW account, TVG, HRTV, and live streaming?
The Springs Inn, once considered a great hotel and destination for horsemen from around the world but deteriorating through the years, was demolished in 2009 and a CVS drugstore now sits on a portion of the land it occupied.
Last but not least, the sole reason I made the trek to the Bluegrass in the first place is also gone with Thoroughbred Times going bankrupt back in September.
Plenty more is different about Lexington in 2013 compared to 1998.
A lot of farms are no longer in operation, replaced by subdivisions, for sale, or shuttered. A lot fewer stallions, mares, foals, yearlings, but that seems to be going on everywhere.
The Keeneland July sale went by the wayside in 2002.
Walt Robertson retired from Fasig-Tipton and went to work for Keeneland.
Parts of downtown, places most would never go near, are thriving. Jefferson Street is bustling with restaurants like The Grey Goose, Stella's, and Nick Ryan's Saloon, shops like Wine + Market, and the booming West Sixth Brewing Co. Another downtown hotspot and popular horseman hangout Dudley's moved, but most would agree to a better location.
There's a lot less grass and a lot more buildings and arenas at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Probably more churches-they even finished a mega version the other day in an old shopping mall.
Definitely more traffic.
More Kentucky basketball fans, at least in the wake of last year's national championship and before some jumped back off the bandwagon of this year's less-than-stellar squad.
There's a minor league baseball team-a great sporting alternative when there's no racing (or basketball).
For all the changes plenty of staples remain.
A lot of guys still wear khakis and plaid button downs. A lot of ladies still gob on the makeup and tease up the hair.
Winters are mild. Summers are hot.
Racing at Keeneland is still 15 or 16 days in the spring (depending on where Easter falls) and 17 in the fall.
There's still no night Thoroughbred racing, thankfully.
No morning racing, either, thankfully. Seriously, who needs 12 or 13 races, starting before brunch and going till almost dark?
Still a lot of opinions when the first Saturday in May rolls around.
Even more opinions when that basketball team mentioned earlier isn't playing to expectations, which seems like more often than not.
It's still the Horse Capital of the World.
Just don't tell the folks in Ocala.