It was a simple question, asked to fill space, small talk on a sweltering afternoon at Saratoga.
"How long has it been?"
"Eight, 10 years..." Jimmy Foulk said. "No, maybe 20."
Gail Foulk set it straight.
"Jimmy, it's been 40 years."
Husband looked at wife, shrugged his shoulders, and agreed that maybe it had been 40 years since they had been to Saratoga.
He knew it was less than 50, because he and Gail were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary Saturday. He bought her a card.
In a front-row box, courtesy of Darby Dan Farm (thank you!), after a stable tour in the morning, a Friday night stay at the Saratoga Sleigh (thank you!), Jim and Gail were comparing notes and enjoying the moment.
As a gift to his parents, Darrin Foulk, purchased the annual Saratoga Special auction item at this year's Jimmy Jam, a fundraiser my sister, Sheila, helps organize every year.
All the money goes to her friend - Darrin's friend - Jim Sebest. Jim dove into a wave at Bethany Beach, Del. August 26, 2010. Somehow, he hit his head on the ocean floor and fractured his C3 vertebrae in his neck. He would never move his legs or arms again. With a wife, two young kids, life was never the same.
The Jimmy Jam mission statement reads, "Raising spinal cord injury awareness and funds for Jim Sebest, Andi Stine Sebest and family. One wave upended their lives; this kindness wave helps rebuild it."
That synopsis has my sister's name written all over it.
Sheila asks us every year if we can donate something. Without Super Bowl tickets, a house in the islands or an autographed scorecard from Augusta, we put together a Saratoga package and Jim's friends bid on it. Some like horse racing. Some even use it after they win it.
Every year, I tell Sheila, "Yes, whatever you want, write it up. Try to say weekdays. No Travers. Mutually-agreeable date..." She can write fiction - she embellishes the tour, the experience, the perks, to the point where I think about bidding on it. As it gets closer, I start to dread that I said yes. I think to myself, 'I'm not doing this next year. It's too much hassle - golf cart tour, breakfast, box at the races - I don't have time to be a tour guide, I'm writing a newspaper.'
Then I think of Jim...
This year, Darrin outbid everyone else and gave it to his parents as their anniversary present. He texted me about his parents coming to Saratoga, what day would work, how it would work.
We booked a room at the Sleigh, touched base a few times and I picked up Jimmy at 8 o'clock Saturday morning.
Standing on the porch, he looked like my dad, ready to go to the track. Baseball hat, sneakers, a smile, a glint in his eye, pure enthusiasm.
Jimmy galloped horses, rode in a jump race at Rose Tree Hunt Meet, worked as a foreman for Buddy Raines at Delaware Park, trained horses around the Mid-Atlantic, winning races from Bowie to Garden State Park.
We drifted through the stable area, winding through the trees, watching horses gallop, talking to old friends, stopping at the coffee stand, watching Travers hope Keen Ice breeze.
"Nothing's changed," Jimmy said. "Nothing's changed."
We talked about Paddy Smithwick, the Hall of Fame jump jockey. We talked about Bill Hartack, the Hall of Fame flat jockey. We talked about Bobby Fitzgerald, the retired jockey who banged out a career at Penn National and Delaware Park. We talked about the big house at Delaware Park, Jimmy bunked above the three-car garage, in the 60s. In the 70s, Joey and I played basketball in that room, a desk, a chair and a bucket as the basket, if you opened the windows, you could hear Tony Bentley's race calls in the afternoon.
Jimmy touched me on the knee, like my dad when he has a story to tell, and told me about breaking his wrist, tearing up his knee and ruining his shot in the major leagues. He told me about training horses at Garden State Park, about working on the farm, about cashing bets, about the green gel he put on his horse's legs. It was an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Jimmy was ebullient.
Three hours later, I picked up Gail and Jimmy for the races. Gail wore a hat, Jimmy brought his binoculars, his camera. We looked at some turf horses in the second and settled into the front-row box for the afternoon. Jimmy ordered a Coors Light, Gail ordered a water, we boxed a few exactas, told a couple of stories, we met some new friends.
After the Adirondack and with a story to write, I said goodbye to Gail and Jimmy.
Jimmy looked at me and shook my hand. "This has been a great day. A great day, Sean. I'm going to buy this in next year's auction, bring Gail, my son, we'll come up for the whole weekend..."
"Definitely," I said. "Definitely."