SARATOGA SPRINGS — On big race days in New York, it’s not unusual to see NYRA Safety Steward Juan Dominguez in the vicinity of a notable figure — equine or human.
For example, that was him front and center as Justify was led back to the barn following his Belmont Stakes win to secure the 13th Triple Crown.
So on June 9, 2018, it was Justify; on Aug. 26, 2000, it was a Justice.
Specifically, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on Travers Day at Saratoga Race Course.
And she wanted to get a bet down.
Ginsburg, who died at the age of 87 last Friday, visited Saratoga in 2000, and it was Dominguez’s responsibility in his role then as an investigator with NYRA Security to assist U.S. Marshals chaperoning Ginsburg.
Dominguez’s respect for her was such that news of her death brought pain and sorrow. But it also brought back fond memories of having spent a day at the track with her, which also lives on in the written form of a thank you letter she mailed to Dominguez 10 days after the Travers.
“… The place seemed to me even more magnetic than it was in my distant memory,” Ginsburg wrote, and her experience perhaps was enhanced by the fact that she crushed Travers winner Unshaded out of the park, on a $50 win wager.
Dominguez’s experience certainly was enhanced by having met such an influential and important person, but one who carried herself without any airs that her station in life placed her above anyone else.
“When she went to bet the horse, she didn’t want us to break the line,” Dominguez said. “She was very unassuming, very kind. And she went up and bet $50 on the horse.
“Other than us being on one side of her, she didn’t want us to part the seas. She didn’t want us to break up the line. She didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s day by her being there.”
And she was there all day, Dominguez said, not for just a quick pop-in for the big race.
A former trainer and jockey agent, Dominguez had not been working for NYRA security for long when he was chosen to be part of Ginsburg’s escort on Travers Day.
Since then, he has been part of the detail at Belmont Park and Saratoga looking out for dignitaries like President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton when she was running for the U.S. Senate, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and foreign royalty.
In 2000, Ginsburg was hosted in Saratoga Springs by fellow Harvard Law School graduate Jamienne Studley, then the president of Skidmore College.
They spent the day at the track, then had dinner at Scribner House, the president’s on-campus residence. On Tuesday, the college posted on its website a recounting of that day, including a photo of the diminutive Ginsburg in a festive summer outfit and a huge floppy sun hat.
According to the post, the Brooklyn native Ginsburg, who received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, “knew upstate New York well. She said she came to Saratoga Springs regularly as a teen and occasionally escaped here while working as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks in her youth.”
The Saratoga part of that was corroborated in her thank you note to Dominguez, dated Sept. 5, 2000, and signed by Ginsburg on U.S. Supreme Court letterhead:
“Special appreciation for the great care you took to secure my safe passage through the crowds at the Saratoga track. The close-up view of the horses at the paddock made the day all the more memorable. I had last visited the track in 1951. Nearly a half-century later, the place seemed to me even more magnetic than it was in my distant memory.
“With thanks, and every good wish,
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg”
“We were contacted by the United States Marshals office because she was going to be coming to the Travers, and for some reason, they asked for me,” Dominguez said. “I don’t know why. There were people with more experience working there longer than I was.
“But I was on her detail, I met her in front of the clubhouse, and I guess she was a guest of the president of Skidmore. We sat upstairs in the boxes, and during the day we went down to the paddock for a couple races, and I think we even went to the paddock for the Travers.
“And she loved going to the paddock. She went to Saratoga when she was much younger. She wanted to be close to the horses. And picture a betting line on Travers Day. It was 10-deep, at least.”
Ginsburg placed her $50 bet on Unshaded at one of the teller windows in the clubhouse, then collected $222.50 when he got up just before the wire to win by a head at odds of almost 7-2 to pay $8.90 on a $2 win wager.
“When the horse won, she got very, very excited. She might have got a tip from somebody,” Dominguez said with a laugh.
He has kept the treasured thank you letter in his safe, but plans to have it framed now, in the wake of Ginsburg’s death.
Dominguez has followed her career since the 2000 Travers and has seen the 2018 movie about Ginsburg, “On the Basis of Sex.”
“This is a Supreme Court Justice of the United States. To send me a letter like that, for walking her around … I was just doing my job,” he said. “It shows the kind of class and the kind of person she is. It’s one of my greatest honors and privileges to be with her. She didn’t have to write a letter like that to me.
“I was sad. Sad in one way, and honored in another, that I was with the Justice. It was a great part of my life. I can really say that. I have a son who is a lawyer, and his fiancée is a lawyer, and they were so impressed by that letter when I showed it to them.
“She leaves a lasting impression on you. Just a very kind person. She led a lot of women to go on and become lawyers, just based on what she did and standing up for people’s rights. She was a pioneer. Just a pioneer.”