Sometimes, this gig feels like you're running a crime tip line. Calls, emails, texts and hollers, 'Hey, you should write about...I've got a story for you...have you ever written about...'
Some are good, most are not. Then I get a call from Bill Habib. I don't know Bill. He says he knows the paper. Knows a good story. He sends me an email, a day after leaving me a message on my phone. Says, he's a former writer and publisher. I learn later, he's a former lobbyist. He's good. He writes a hell of an email - a bit of flattery, a bit of insight, a bit of lobbying.
As a writer and former publisher, myself, I realize that you and your staff must work through the night to compose, design, layout, publish, and distribute such a comprehensive and up-to-the-minute newspaper on a daily basis.
As for Bob McKenna, he is more than an avid fan; he is a horseracing aficionado. His knowledge of the game far transcends familiarity with simulcast racing at his wagering base of operation at Rockingham Park in Salem, NH - once known during its heyday, as "The Saratoga of New Hampshire." Bob is a studious follower of Thoroughbred racing on the national scene, particularly in the weeks and months leading up to and during Triple Crown races, the advent and running of the Travers and of course, Breeders' Cup Day.
Post retirement, he goes to Rockingham five days a week - sitting with admiring friends, who look to him to 'release' his own horses to watch for the day - and/or his occasional long-shot special of the day.
Traditionally, Bob makes three treks to Saratoga in August - the first with his longtime friend, Ken, who resides with his family in upstate New York - the second trip is with me for Alabama weekend - and the third leg will be the upcoming Travers weekend, which he attends with his very-proud-to-be-Irish son Kevin.
As Irish luck would have it, this year's venerable Travers Stakes - being Bob's 32nd consecutive trip to the Summer Classic - will fall squarely on Bob's 66th Birthday
As we are both fans of The Saratoga Special, in particular your Cup of Coffee series, I'm aware that you look for opportunities to write about the little people - no, not the leprechauns, but the interesting customers who comprise Saratoga's fan base.
Maybe, his story will prove to be newsworthy fodder to accompany your daily Cup of Coffee.
See what I mean about his email? Lobbied, I wandered into the picnic area Friday afternoon to meet Bob and his son Kevin. Just two race fans, with the "common folk" enjoying an afternoon, under the shade of a tree and under the spell of Saratoga.
Bob loves The Special. Picks one up every morning he comes to the track, "when the ink is still wet." He brings copies home to his buddies at Rockingham Park. They expect them, devour them.
When Bob sees a $5,000 claimer, he sees Secretariat, "They're just majestic animals."
His brother-in-law knew a guy in the Boston Post Office. At 12:01, January 1, their Travers requests were postmarked. They always got seats.
Coolers were banned in the clubhouse seats. Bob bought a Travers ticket for his cooler, placed it next to him. Security was confused. It worked once. They tightened the policy after that.
On his first trip, in 1983, Play Fellow won the Travers. Two years later, Bob made his first $100 bet, on Chief's Crown who obliged. Two years later, Java Gold won in the slop, "It was black as night.
Every year, Bob would make up a story to tell his friends before the Travers.
The last line of the story had to be a name of a horse. He and his friends went to Dakota's down on Exit 5 or 6. The last line in 1996, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Will's Way paid $16.60. They returned to Dakota's Saturday night, the bartender stood on the bar and clapped when Bob arrived, drinks were on the house.
His buddy was in line to bet a race on Travers Day. He wouldn't move. Bob nudged him, he stood, Bob went around him, bet. Other bettors yelled at him to get out of the way. He continued to stand, stone still. Finally, the race ran, Bob lost his money, his friend showed up. Bob asked him how he did. "I picked up a couple of hundred." Bob said, "You must have bet a lot of money." He said, "No, I was standing on a couple of hundred dollar bills, I was afraid to move."
As for this year, Bob likes Orb. Loved him in the Derby, he's loyal.
Bill, thanks for the note.
- Watch Java Gold win the Travers.
- Watch Chief's Crown win the Travers.