Paula Curtis-Carter stood in front of the dozens of people assembled at the Principessa Elena Society in Saratoga Springs on Thursday. She held aloft a cup containing a couple of fingers of Guinness, preparing to lead a toast to her husband Allan Carter, who died in April.
Before spending 15 years as the historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, before spending 30 years as a law librarian at the New York State Library in Albany, Carter had joined the U.S. Army, learning Russian in a nine-month intensive language program before being posted to Japan.
“Nostrovia!” cried Curtis-Carter, anglicizing a Russian term commonly interpreted as “cheers” before offering a similar toast in Japanese. “Kanpai!”
A man from Glens Falls, toasted in Russian and Japanese, with an Irish beer. And that just begins to tell the multifarious story of a man whose name became locally synonymous with racing history.
In 2011, the opening of Saratoga Race Course coincided with the forecast of a day of brutal heat and humidity, prompting speculation that opening day would be cancelled. On July 21 that year, the day before opening day, an email from Carter appeared in my inbox.
Subject heading: “Saratoga Race Course season length, cancellations, etc.”
The body of the message contained a list of every Saratoga meeting, from 1863 to 2010, with the number of days of racing and notes on any cancellations, including the reason for calling off the races.
I hadn’t asked him about it. We had never discussed it. But he knew that I’d be curious, and not a summer goes by that I don’t consult that email.
My Gazette colleague Mike MacAdam shared a similar anecdote.
“Allan spent untold hours doing deep dives on research purely for the sake of investigating and preserving the history of the sport,” MacAdam said. “He copied the official race charts from every Travers back to 1864, and a stack of these packets just showed up on a table in the press box one day several years ago. They’re an invaluable resource, still. That was Allan.”
In 2013, WMHT, Albany’s public television station, produced a documentary for the 150th anniversary of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga. Carter was featured in “The Track at Saratoga: America’s Grandest Race Course” (disclosure: so was I), his prodigious knowledge of the sport and its history an invaluable and inimitable asset to the film. That same year, he published 150 Years of Racing in Saratoga: Little-Known Stories & Facts from America’s Most Historic Racing City, co-written with Mike Kane, with whom Carter had worked at the National Museum of Racing.
“We had a perfect situation,” said Kane at Carter’s memorial last week. “I read his chapters, he read mine. He wrote a lot about the 19th century, and I was more of a contemporary guy. It was so much fun because we were friends, and he was the one who got us the contract for it.”
In 2017, Carter published his second book on racing, From American Eclipse to Silent Screen: An Early History of New York-breds, and last month, his final book was published, posthumously. New York’s Greatest Thoroughbreds: A Contemporary History builds on his research into the accomplished horses that have been bred and run in New York state.
Carter worked as the racing museum’s historian from 2003 to 2018, and what he did in those years would be enough for an entire career. But the museum gig was actually his retirement activity; following his military service, Carter earned a degree in library science and was a fixture at the New York State Museum.
A Government Lawyer in Residence at Albany Law School and an adjunct professor of law, Bennett Liebman has served in a variety of roles in state government, including those in which law and horse racing intersect. He was a member of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board for more than 10 years; he was Deputy Secretary to the Governor for Gaming and Racing in the Cuomo administration; and coordinated the Government Law Center’s Program on Racing and Wagering Law.
“When I worked in both the lieutenant governor’s office and the governor’s office, one of my jobs was doing governmental research,” he said. “For that, you had to go to the State Library, which had a decent-sized staff. But not everybody knew everything. Except Allan. Allan knew everything. If you ever couldn’t find something, Allan knew it.”
Carter’s knowledge of horse racing was matched by his love for it. He had his spot at the track, Section W, up by the top of the stretch, and a photo of the grandstand’s section sign adorned the cake at his service, and though he was said by his sister to be “bad with numbers,” he was an inveterate handicapper.
He unfailingly shared his time, his expertise, his humor, and his opinions. In February 2020, I asked if he’d be willing to talk with a local student who was making a podcast about horse racing, and he agreed without hesitation. After reading a blog post or article I’d written about some element of Saratoga racing history, I’d not infrequently get a message from him adding details about whatever I’d written, his curiosity piqued to dig up information that would be invaluable.
Those emails often began, “I’m sure this is more than you would ever want to know about…”
It never was.
He had the uncanny ability to know exactly what would interest me, and the kindness and generosity to find it, even without my asking. A historian, a fan, a researcher, an ambassador — in Allan, we’ve lost all of those, losses that won’t soon, if ever, be replaced.