"How long have you been writing about this place?"
The question came out of the crowd, at the races, just after interviewing John Velazquez about winning the Vanderbilt. I turned and a perfect stranger, under the brim of a Yankees hat, was staring at me, from under the tree near the jocks' room.
"How long you been writing about this place?" he said again.
I paused and thought about it for a minute, "Seems like forever."
He smirked, "Really, how long?"
I thought about it some more, "Well, I wrote some love letters and songs from the end of a bar but really, 1999, when I wrote a journal about the meet."
"Yeah, bet your writing's changed since then. Bet you've changed," he said.
That was it. That's all he said.
I smiled and began to walk home, amused by the conversation. I guess he got me at a weak moment, because that's all I thought about as I walked through the paddock, past Siro's, under the pines and out to Union Avenue. Sometimes, it's the chance meetings, the throw-away lines that can gnaw.
With my head churning, I found the last copy of Saratoga Days in my possession and thumbed through the musings - the thoughts and experiences of a 29-year-old jump jockey, nearing the end of the only thing he ever wanted to be, hungry and angry, galloping horses and wrestling with his voice
Fourteen years ago, it went something like this...
Friday, August 6, 1999.
Did I ever tell you about my walk? This was last Saturday but worth retracing.
I had just seen Victory Gallop cool out at his barn, watched Elliott Walden blow dirt out of the Whitney winner's eyes. Always amazes me what these precious animals do for our entertainment. They have to have their eyes blown out after a race. Literally, you open their eyes wide with your fingers and blow out the dirt. Looks painful but better than spending the night with eyes full of sand.
I watched Victory Gallop all the way back to his barn where he finally looked at ease after his Whitney masterpiece. He caught drips of water off his nose when he had a bath, walked under the trees and posed for photographer Barbara Livingston and her cronies
It always awes me how the good ones know they are being watched. They pose for the attention. Bring out a camera or a crowd and they instantly become regal and enchanting.
I started to walk back to my car (had to be past 7 by now), my job complete. Walden's barn is about halfway down the backside of the main track. So I wandered out of the trees and looked both ways. A long walk, whichever direction I chose. It felt like my car was back in Pennsylvania. I thought about cutting across the infield but it probably wouldn't have made any difference. Of all the people I know in Saratoga, not one happened to drive by as I was searching for an easy way home. Now, I'm glad for the lack of taxi service. Still in coat, tie, loafers. Still carrying my mobile phone, tape recorder, Form, notepad, program, pens, money, digital camera, two sets of sunglasses and whatever paraphernalia you might find in a navy blazer. So I started walking.
I looked down at my shoes; they were polished for the start of this day, about eight hours ago. Now they looked camel brown, purse dust. Made me wonder about a day at Saratoga. I started out primped and pristine, and finished walking by myself around the racetrack. I felt like walking straight to the cleaners and dumping off what was on my body. After that - a shower, a porch and a cold beer.
But still I walked. I passed a couple of grooms heavy into Budweiser. The looked at me, waved and wondered if I was lost or just couldn't find my car. I felt lost, in a good way. I could have stopped for a Bud, but kept walking. The sprinklers were in full force in the center of the racetrack, the water trucks and harrows erased today's exploits and prepared for tomorrow. I walked.
Music blared from the Horse Shoe. Made me stop and wonder who was in there and who was out here. I was alone and thinking about this glorious town. Thinking about how I might find the words for Victory Gallop and Behrens. I agonize at the thought of how to do it justice, if the words will show up. So I walked, listened to a few bars of "How Sweet it is to be Loved by You," even sang a few lines. Bad song when you're alone.
So I walked along Nelson Avenue, still under the trees, and made eye contact with a few fans heading home for the day. Some looked pain, others content. I bounced between both.