Fair warning: These are the musings of an older guy who wishes that the Saratoga flat track could be what it once was — and knows that it cannot.
It is now the reincarnation of the Great Barrington Fair, but with a much finer grade of race horse. They are supposed to be cutting back this year, but the paddock still seems jammed with T-shirt kiosks and hot dog stands and enough picnic tables that you should be able to make it from Union to Nelson avenues jumping from one to another, never touching ground. “Care for another cotton candy before the races start, Diamond Jim?”
Time was when Saratoga Race Course had ... well, it had class. A pristine paddock where the only fast-food joint consisted of a lady and her kids selling fried chicken and ersatz lemonade: lemons squeezed over large chunks of ice in steel buckets, and a cup of the drippings was yours for 50 cents. And, you young kids sit down for this one: There was a dress code in the clubhouse.
But look, we all understand that it had to be done, turning the place into mostly midway, save for the ring-toss games with the plush animal prizes. With horse racing’s fan appeal fading fast, NYRA had to lower the demographics and keep the families and the cooler crowd coming back, if only for a picnic. But that does not mean that it has to be my cup of Earl Grey. “Did you bring the Cheetos, Lillian Russell?”
It’s not just the picnic tables and the T-shirts. Saratoga seems also to have lost its great characters, heroes and rogues and beautiful types and grifters who found their way to the Spa each August.
For me, it’s people like Lenny Goodman, agent and surrogate father to Steve Cauthen when the teenaged jockey won the Triple Crown on Affirmed in 1978. Had Goodman never been born, Damon Runyon would have created him in a short story, replete with pinkie ring, slicked-back hair, imparting his entertaining and peculiar views on life and horse racing while leaning against the shoeshine stand each morning at the entrance to the jockey’s quarters.
And Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, who got jobbed by CBS for making some not-so-much-racist-as-dumb comments back in 1988 — comments that, had they been uttered in fancy prose by an anthropologist, would have gone unnoticed. Jimmy was too easy a target, this big, brash loudmouth on the outside who was really a softie inside, a softie who suffered the deaths of three of his five children from cystic fibrosis and, from what I knew, rarely turned down a request to help some nonprofit raise money for a good cause.
There were the nameless ones, like the very, very famous trainer back in the mid-’80s who, with three or four of his stablehands, went chasing all over the place at the Fasig Tipton sales grounds, looking for the trainer’s wife, who was suspected of dallying with one of the stable’s help. Or the socialite — no, NOT M’Lou — who hardly ever made it to the races before 3 in the afternoon, having stayed up most of the night, chatting with one or another of the very bronzed, much-younger-than-she-was men who seemed always to be around her.
Or, most of all, Hall of Fame Jockey Eric Guerin. He had 2,712 winners, none more famous than Native Dancer, the first equine television star in the early ’50s. The “Dancer” was known as the Gray Ghost for his stunning color and, as Kimberly Gatto writes in her new book, “Saratoga Race Course, August Place to Be,” TV Guide Magazine did a survey at the time showing the Ghost to be the second biggest attraction on television, only second to Ed Sullivan.
By the time I met Eric Guerin in 1985, doing a story for TV news, he should have been comfortable and well off, but he was not. Guerin himself told me that he had not saved his money and in order to come each summer to Saratoga, scene of so many of his and Native Dancer’s triumphs, Eric, 60 years old by then, had to work a couple of jobs, as a mutuel clerk in the afternoon on Saratoga’s backstretch and in the very early mornings as a hot walker for a trainer stationed near the Oklahoma track. I asked the trainer to talk, on camera, about Eric Guerin and he ran away: “You think I want people to know that I have a Hall of Fame jockey as my hot walker?” Guerin and his wife would stay each August with a Saratoga businessman, which cut down on expenses.
And, always, there was just a bit of melancholy. Native Dancer in 1953 was expected to win the Triple Crown. But coming out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby, the Dancer, 7-10 favorite, got bumped and was all over the place as he tried to catch the eventual winner, Dark Star. In 22 starts, that would be the Gray Ghost’s only defeat, and Guerin got blamed by many. One turf writer said: “Guerin took Native Dancer everywhere on the track except to the ladies room.” I took Eric Guerin to the Hall of Fame, where he had been inducted 13 years earlier, so we could get some B-roll for our piece, and as we looked at the portraits of owners and others, Eric stopped at the painting of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the Dancer’s owner. And he started crying. Guerin apologized, explaining to me, “I just get a little emotional because those were different times back then; that’s when the owners were real, real class people.”