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McLoughlin Take 2: Opening Day just ain’t what it was

Friday, July 20, 2012
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Please, stick me with a blunt, dull needle in a very sensitive area if you see me anywhere near the flat track on this, Opening Day 2012 at Saratoga.

Don’t get it wrong. Here’s hoping for a record-smashing crowd on hand for the Spa debut of the Andrew Cuomo Racing Association, or ACRA, successor to the New York Racing Association, or NYRA. But count me out.

Instead, I will find a quiet place to consider the state takeover of the most important thoroughbred racing in the nation as ACRA replaces NYRA for at least the next three years. The Andrew Cuomo Racing Association now joins the constellation of sister state agencies such as DMV and that office in the Department of State that oversees barber shops.

Maybe it’s the heat (I was going to say “wave,” but meteorologists are so priggish about that term that I just avoid it altogether), but I would not be all that surprised if ACRA really does become another state entity. Top jocks, the Velazquezes, and leading trainers, the Pletchers, might not be interested, but wait until the less-flushed segment of the racing crowd gets a load of the benefits: The personal, the annual, the sick leave, the early retirements, the union picnics at Lanthiers Grove, not to mention el cheapo healthcare after leaving the payroll. It’s a longshot, probably 40 to 1 in the morning line, but there’s undoubtedly some PERB arbitrator ready to declare that the backstretch people are state workers. See if you get six-day-a-week racing then.

Delusions aside, Opening Day just ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, Frank Sullivan, Saratoga’s resident humorist, would officially declare the Spa racing season to be upon us with a piece in The New York Times on the Sunday before. The dateline always was “six furlongs from the Saratoga finish line,” location of Sullivan’s home close by the street that now bears his name near the clubhouse entrance.

I suspect the expanded, 40-day meet has something to do with it, but Opening Day lacks urgency now. Used to be, attendance was mandatory, you planned for months; now ... well there will be 39 more days, after all. I was one of those know-it-alls who got excited by the additional two weeks of racing, but the expansion has diminished the special-ness, if only by a bit. Already, cries can be heard from the grandstand, wanting the meet lengthened even more. The numbers are irresistible: Average attendance at Saratoga, 22,000 and change, while downstate the clerks pretty much know the bettors by first name.

Wonder what Frank Sullivan would think of Opening Day 2012? He regularly wrote humor for The New Yorker and irregularly for other mags. In a 1956 piece for Sports Illustrated — Sullivan died in ’76 — he recalled one habitué of the long-gone Spa casinos who made his living rolling dice describing himself in the city directory as “dealer in ivory.” Another gambler simply listed his occupation as “gentleman.”

But the gentry are pretty much disappeared from the track. Jackets and ties in the clubhouse are now supplanted by sun-faded L.L. Bean polos. In the week leading up to Opening Day, jewel thieves could be counted on to strike. Marylou Whitney or Sonny Werblin, then-owner of the New York Jets, or some other richy-rich would be relieved of family heirlooms said to be worth tens of thousands. When’s the last time you heard about a respectable heist in Saratoga? And M’Lou, she even put the kibosh on her annual Whitney Gala.

What might Sullivan say about the country fair that is the flat track now, the T-shirt kiosks, the barbecue joints and the souvenir stands. Popular venues all, but hardly attractive to a “dealer in ivory” or a “gentleman.” It’s become the Great Barrington Fair with a much more substantial equine quality.

Maybe I’m cranky because of the faces I no longer might see on Opening Day: Federal Judge Jim Foley with Bankruptcy Judge Justin Mahoney checking out his Chapter 7 customers; former Saratoga Mayor Art Kearney and his wife with lawn chairs near the betting windows on the backstretch; Jimmy the Greek dispensing tips guaranteed to get you an appearance before Judge Mahoney; restaurateur Joe Collins standing under the shed in the paddock; Father Joe Romano at the clubhouse entrance refusing to share information from his cousin-jockey, Richie Migliore, or Hall of Fame jockey Eric Guerin working at a betting window for non-union scale just to pay his August way, naming but a few.

So finally, this Opening Day word for the Andrew Cuomo Racing Association: Forty days and nights is a long time to be in the desert and it’s a more than sufficient time for the Saratoga race meet.

John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel 13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.

 
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