Opening Day makes you stop and think, take note, assess. How's life? What have I accomplished? How have I failed? What needs fixing? Who's still in my life? Who's not? Just for a moment, usually on the drive up the Northway or on the first morning at the track. The introspection doesn't last long, first race springs at 1:00 Friday afternoon. The flag falls and that's the last reflection until Labor Day, when we leave here, some of us skint, some of us flush, all of us changed. In between, tickets will be cashed, crumpled. Horses will win, lose, get hurt. Trainers will get hired, fired. Jockeys, too. Romances will be kindled. Marriages will stumble, crumble. Cars will crash. Records will be broken. Memories will be made.
Thursday morning, the backstretch tour feels the same, except for the heat. Trees, tracks, barns, paths and horses. Friends we haven't seen in a year wave hello, their names scroll through our brains, trying to remember. Horses try to form a routine in a strange place, one gets loose and dashes the right way, then the wrong way, another walks home without a saddle, exercise rider shaking his head in disbelief. Stall screens, box fans, trainer plaques and wall boxes are measured, hung, balanced and realigned. Fresh traffic cops yell for you to stop, while you're stopped. A few subtle changes, a few major changes, the same place, the same feeling.
Steve Rushing drives his golf cart along the road on the far turn, his jockey's name, "Cornelio Velasquez," stenciled across the front of the green rental. Like Starsky with a new Hutch, Rushing goes about his job without his longtime comrade, Ramon Dominguez. Saratoga won't be the same without Ramon. He'll be here, don't talk about him in the past tense, one door has closed, plenty will open. His style, his accuracy, his subtle grace will be missed. Yes, that passage of time.
Pat Kelly shakes hands with his left, his right fingers taped, a couple of screws holding them in place, after a horse got cast before the Belmont Stakes back in June. Ken Kelly, shank swinging, walks back from the track. Mike Kelly, back where he belongs with Alex Solis' book, stops to swap stories about old Saratoga rentals. We laugh. Pat Kelly pauses, "First year without Pop. We lost him in April. We'll miss him up here." Yes, that passage of time.
Charlie LoPresti strolls out of his barn, under the trees, across from the five-eighths pole. Pants tucked in his boots, bandage around his wrist after a filly snagged him, shirt tail waving. He's gone from an unknown Kentucky shipper, trying his hand at the big time to a Saratoga regular, with the Horse of the Year tucked and ready to duplicate his Saratoga scourge. Yes, that passage of time.
Bernie and Kate Dalton bathe Lillehammer and Cat Feathers in the yard across Henning Road. Husband and wife, jockey and trainer, exercise riders and grooms. Cat Feathers pulled off a shocker last year, changed their lives. She's back, she won't be the same price. Yes, that passage of time.
The Saratoga Special staff introduces itself, a few new interns and a few old faces, stacking paper racks and handing out fliers. The boys who couldn't look over the steering wheel when we started this in 2001, now drive the golf cart, voices changed, they shave now, chase girls, hold down jobs, talk back. Yes, that passage of time.
Amy Tarrant, with a select string for the first time at Saratoga, smiles and introduces herself. Tom Amoss walks up the horse path, phone to his ear, is he here for the meet? Brian Hogan drives his tractor trailer through the Clare Court gate and asks David Jacobson for directions. Lorna Chavez, with a broken ankle, drives a golf cart instead of a horse, Picasso without a brush. Chad Brown has taken over for Nick Zito in the barn across the yard from my rental house. The Chief stops and says hello, asks about a horse he hasn't seen in a year, then pounces in his cart to see a horse train on the main track. Yes, that passage of time.