The Process

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As Christopher K. awoke one winter morning from uneasy dreams, he heard from outside his bedroom window the sounds of drilling and hammering.

“What the dickens is going on out there?” he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small (“This old house really needs an addition”, he thought, adding, “it’s become impossible to get anything decent in this town!”) lay quiet between the four familiar walls. But outside the window, the sounds of drilling and hammering continued.

The giveaway Saratoga clock on the wall (he had dozens more in the basement, having figured they would be worth a fortune on eBay someday) read 8:15. Every day at eight in the morning he was brought his breakfast by Anna, his cook, but today she didn’t come. That had never happened before.

K. waited a little while, and finally, both hungry and disconcerted, rang the bell. There was immediately a knock at the door and a man entered. He had never seen this man in this house before, but somehow he seemed vaguely familiar. He was slim but firmly built, his well-worn black T-shirt had a faded image of galloping horses and text that read “Fall Championship Season”. K. wondered what that meant.

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“Who are you?” asked K., sitting half upright in his bed. The man, however, ignored this question as if his arrival simply had to be accepted, and merely replied, in an impossibly deep voice that seemed to have lurched from the mid-1960s, “You rang?”

“Anna should have brought me my breakfast,” said K. He tried to work out who the man actually was, just by observation and thinking about it, but handicapping was never K.’s strong suit, and besides, the man didn’t stay still to be looked at for very long. Instead he went over to the door, opened it slightly, and said to someone who was clearly standing immediately behind it, “He wants Anna to bring him his breakfast.”

There was a little laughter in the neighboring room, it was not clear from the sound of it whether there were several people laughing. The strange man could not have learned anything from it that he hadn’t known already, but now he said to K., as if making his report, “It is not possible.”

K. jumped out of bed, his feet finding his fluffy Uggs, and said “I want to see who that is in the next room, and why Anna has let me be disturbed in this way.”

It immediately occurred to him that he needn’t have said this out loud, and that he must to some extent have acknowledged their authority by doing so, but that didn’t seem important to him at the time. That, at least, was how the stranger took it, as he said, “Don’t you think you’d better stay where you are?”

“I want neither to stay here nor to be spoken to by you until you have introduced yourself. And what is that infernal racket going on outside?”

“I meant it for your own good,” said the stranger, “but suit yourself.” The stranger opened the door and walked into the adjacent room, K. trailing behind.

Perhaps there was a little more space in the adjacent room than usual today, but if so it was not immediately obvious, especially as the main difference was the presence of a man sitting by an open window reading a Racing Form from which he now looked up.

“You should have stayed in your room! Didn’t Franz tell you?”

“And what is it you want, then?” said K. “And why is that window open? It’s cold outside!” The sound of the drilling and hammering seemed louder on account of the open window.

“I want to see Anna! I want my breakfast!” said K., making a movement as if tearing himself away from the two men – even though they were standing well away from him – and wanting to go.

“No,” said the man at the window, who threw his Racing Form down on a coffee table and stood up. “You can’t go away when you’re under arrest.”

“That’s how it seems,” said K. “And why am I under arrest? I know I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve met all my goals. I get my bonus every year.”

“That’s something we’re not allowed to tell you. Now go into your room and wait there. Proceedings are underway and you – and everyone else – will learn about everything in due time.” With that the two strangers turned and strode off down the stairs, leaving K. shivering in only his pajamas and Uggs.

K. briefly considered following the man’s direction, but since he was the CEO, and answered only to the Governor, he followed the strangers downstairs.

The strangers had turned into the too-small dining room and then into the kitchen (which needed updating) and out the back door, leaving it open as if they had been raised in a barn. A cold wind blew in, carrying with it the sound of pounding hammers, and K., shivering in chilly fear, grabbed the first thing he saw – a garish red sports jacket – from a hook by the kitchen door and followed them outside.

In the spacious backyard stood a monstrous circular structure built from cheap stockade fencing and topped by a tent that K. recognized as the covering from the private champagne bar that once flanked the choicest spot along the paddock at the racetrack. The strangers were talking with several workers in winter-weight NYRA coats who were putting the finishing touches on a sturdy wooden door that completed the gruesome circle.

Pulling on his red jacket – which was made of summer-weight wool and didn’t offer much protection from the winter chill – K. approached the men and said “What is the meaning of this?”

“You didn’t wait as we had asked,” the second stranger said. “We haven’t had the chance to string the ribbon for you to cut as part of the grand opening.” Nonetheless, the stranger stood alongside the open door and beckoned K. to enter.

K. stepped through the door and saw pictures from a familiar exhibition. There was one of Bob Baffert, and of Angel Cordero, and one of Jerry Bailey. The exhibition  walls which supported the pictures continued in a labyrinth coursing through the circus-like structure.

K. turned to face the two strangers who had followed him inside. “What’s all this, then? Why has the Walk of Fame been moved to my backyard?”

“Because,” Franz said, “you never asked us if we wanted your Walk of Fame in our backyard.”

“Yeah,” said the other stranger. “Didn’t you know we already had a perfectly fine Hall of Fame and Museum of Racing right across Union Avenue? You’ve got to trust the process.”

Franz and the other stranger turned and walked out the door, leaving K. to shiver on the frozen ground in his Uggs, pajamas and red jacket. For the first time K. noticed a doorkeeper, mammoth and bearded and swaddled in a thick fur coat that gave him the appearance of a bear, blocking his exit.

K. timidly approached the doorkeeper, beseeching him. “How will anyone find the Walk of Fame, now that it is located in my backyard?”

The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

***

Grateful acknowledgment to Franz Kafka for the selections shamelessly lifted from “The Metamorphosis”, “The Trial”, and the parable “Before the Law”.

 

 

 

Where Your Horses Run Free

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I guess I should’ve known that the wonderful news coming out of greater Minneapolis wouldn’t last.

A week ago, the enlightened management of Canterbury Park in Shakopee slashed takeout rates; providing their customers with a great gift that will keep on giving. Just two days later, a spokeswoman for Paisley Park in nearby Chanhassen announced the irreplaceable loss of one of Minnesota’s greatest sons.

Bad news travels fast on Twitter. That’s how I found out Prince had died. Maybe he didn’t mean much to you, but count me among the gobsmacked. As the news spread, I looked across rows of cubicles and wondered what, if anything, he meant to the twenty and thirty-somethings who are increasingly taking over my workplace. Hadn’t they seen that halftime show at the 2007 Super Bowl? Didn’t they know?

The office work stopped cold for a few minutes, but then quickly returned to normal. Most of the 65 people I follow on Twitter – weighted overwhelmingly towards racing folk – also seemed to be handling this terrible news just fine. This was the moment I realized that one of our inalienable rights as Americans is the right to choose your own Elvis.

My Elvis was an impossible cross of Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and James Brown. Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, but his missionary work was spreading his gospel on the ecstasies found in physical attraction, erotic love, and rock and roll. He made some people – paging you, Tipper Gore – very nervous.

If right about now you are thinking “What on God’s green earth does this have to do with horse racing?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

Prince didn’t just make people nervous. He flirted. He astounded. He put on shows that drove thousands into a state of communal excitement that could often bubble over into a shared, ecstatic delirium. Kind of like what a great horse race can do.

Although the word currently suffers from overuse, Prince was indeed an artist. In two of his greatest – and filthiest – songs, he invokes horses as metaphor for the sublime, ineffable experience of being thoroughly and exhilaratingly alive.

In “Raspberry Beret”, a young man’s first sexual adventure takes place on “old man Johnson’s farm” before an audience of intrigued and thoughtful equines (“the rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof, and the horses wonder who you are”).

And in “Little Red Corvette”, the horse and horsepower metaphors abound, as a too-fast temptress drives her latest jockey to “the place where (her) horses run free”. Prince asks himself the questions that horseplayers ask of horses. Did he have enough class? Did he have enough gas? Oh, yeah!

A Letter to Readers: On Turning Two

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From Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” (1959)

Dear Reader;

Around2Turns made its Internet debut on May 11, 2014. If blogs were racehorses this one would have turned two years old early this morning. While the frequency of our postings has always tended towards the infrequent, during its first 15 months the blog at least managed to eke out an average of one post every two weeks. But in the past five months that leisurely pace has gone glacial, with the posting schedule lurching undeniably from “roughly fortnightly” towards a slow-motion, head-on collision with “never”.

While you never want to fall easily into that old “correlation = causation” trap, in this case you can make the exception. Our debut as a weekly racing commentator for the Blood-Horse Daily did not merely coincide with the sudden demise of semi-regular posting here at Around2Turns, it was the cause. Apparently when you ladle on the demands of a weekly column to a plate already piled high with full-time employment, marriage, unpaid blogging and a generally lazy nature, it is the blogging that will wind up taking the worst of it.

This result was not unexpected. Our politics are radical environmentalism when it comes to protecting lazy natures, especially our own. But there comes a time when you must consider your semi-dormant blog in the cold morning light and ask yourself one question: Can your lazy nature possibly suck it up a little and find the time to write both the B-HD column and a weekly blog post? While not much on resolutions (we notice they are the things that tend to get broken) the plan for 2016 is to keep doing those things we’ve been doing (only do them a little better), while also adding at least one weekly (late-week) post here at Around2Turns.

As we mused back in early August, perhaps the blog … “will morph into more of a traditional blog, with shorter, more frequent, and more casual observations on the racing scene, with a 2,000-word opus thrown in every now and then when suitable”. Maybe it will become more (for lack of a better word) “personal”, allowing for some occasional excursions into non-thoroughbred areas within the New York circuit, without losing whatever horseplay and handicapping-related mojo still resides beneath this URL. If nothing else, please take from this letter the understanding that we will at least try to do something fun and interesting in this space.

Now that the mostly blank space here over the last five months has been explained, and tentative plans have been revealed, I can get on with the business of wishing happy birthday to all the thoroughbreds, and a happy 2016 to my readers here and at the B-HD. Happy New Year one and all!

Bob

 

Sunday Evening Coming Down

Up until about six PM on Sunday it had been a pretty good Breeders’ Cup weekend. I found the races to be either too hard or too easy (the dreaded “Goldilocks” card), so I wound up making just a few inconsequential bets. There was also a column to write, so I was mostly hoping for some entertaining races that might make for easy writing and perhaps even some fun reading.

My column runs in the Tuesday Blood-Horse Daily, which comes out on Monday nights. Because of my straight job, Sunday is effectively my deadline. But I had promised my wife that we could take a drive and go visiting on Sunday. Therefore, the plan was to write the column while the races were still fresh, make any final edits in Sunday’s cold morning light, then send it off to Lexington and go visiting.

That was exactly how it went. We visited and ate cheese and drank Pinot Noir and ate some more and finally departed the Shawangunks, re-crossed the Hudson, and settled back in for what figured to be a relaxing evening at home. Then I glanced at Twitter and saw that Mattress Mack had fired Maria Borell and I knew right away that the column was screwed.

The first 330 words were still all right. It was many of the next 120 that were the problem.

Besides, who needs American Pharoah now that we have Maria Borell and Runhappy.

Red Smith is long gone, but his belief that the best stories are found at the racetrack is borne out by these two. Runhappy is a gentle charmer who likes to sleep the day away and run like hell whenever he hits the racetrack. Maria Borell enjoys snuggling in the hay with her star and sharing it with fans on social media.

How had this happened? This movie was missing a reel. There was just no way we should already be in the “girl loses horse” part of the film, yet here we were. Having just lost American Pharoah to Ashford Stud and the ages, now we had to sit and watch while young Elizabeth Taylor and “The Pie” are ripped apart? This was no kids movie. This was National Blue Velvet! On Twitter there seemed to be a shared mantra. What the hell is the matter with these (Jim McIngvale and Laura Wohlers) people?

The problem for me was, “what the hell is the matter with Mattress Mack & Co” did not seem to be enough of a foundation upon which to write a new and more timely column. Instead, in a late casting change we substituted the presumptive juvenile filly champion and Jerry Hollendorfer for The Pie and Elizabeth Taylor (in the revised column here on page 11).

It has been a bit more than 48 hours since this all started to break on social media. Mattress Mack has not yet plummeted to the depths of the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, but there still seem to be quite a few people willing to toss him a manhole cover. Lawyers are now involved. It sure looks like irreconcilable differences. You can’t help but feel bad for Ms. Borell, who nursed the colt back to health and made him a champion. And also for Runhappy, who is probably missing Maria Borell almost as much as she is missing him.

What I did on My Summer Vacation

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It’s been a long time between posts here at Around2Turns. Not since August 4th. Yikes!

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I just haven’t been doing it here. While writing a regular column for the new Blood-Horse Daily has been an engaging mix of fun and terror, it’s obvious that this new endeavor has taken a toll on my blogging, which was never prolific on its best day.

The Blood-Horse people were kind enough to let the column run on Tuesdays, as this allows me to write on the weekend and keep it from conflicting with my day job. [I’ve been an analyst in the Circulation Department of The New York Times for the last 15 years.] I am also lucky to have an understanding spouse. Catherine doesn’t like to see me spending half the weekend making faces at the laptop, out of frustration with the sausage-making. But she’s an artist, and can sympathize with those struggling with the creative process.

My debut column for the B-HD was this comic caper where I pretend to be mortally offended by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and can wish him nothing but a speedy retirement. My second time out, I got to rattle the bones of one of my long-dead heroes, swiping bits from Joe Palmer’s “introductory” column at the Herald-Tribune to class up my own for the B-HD.

Not all of the columns get posted to the Blood-Horse website. This third one (see page 6 of this PDF version) didn’t make the cut. Alas. But the good thing about having a weekly column is that you don’t have much time for fretting about your last one, as that next deadline is always gaining on you. I’ve found it’s advisable to worry about the columns you still need to write.

One of the challenges in writing from the “horseplayer” perspective comes from feeling the need to be appropriately critical of an industry that has one or two issues. You would never want your peeps to think you were playing the house organ. But neither do you want to come off as a constant kvetcher. Which can leave you walking a high wire, feeling like you have to be topical and critical as well as entertaining, all in about 450 words.

Anyway, I knew when I took on this Blood-Horse Daily gig that the blog was going to suffer somewhat. It was August. I needed to get to Saratoga for some race days. I needed to show up at work and hold on to my job. I needed to write a good weekly column. I needed to help maintain domestic tranquility. Blogging? That could wait.

But it can’t wait any more. There’s no reason why Around2Turns can’t be something similar to what it was before the B-HD column came along. That’s not too high a hurdle to clear. Somewhere in between national fences and the matchbox jump at the Upper Class Twit of the Year Show. I’ll be out at Belmont Park this Saturday. Next week it will be October and time for Treve’s run at three straight Arcs. Then comes the Keeneland meet, with the Breeders’ Cup capping off what figures to be a great month. It’s racing. There is plenty to write about. Some of it might as well end up here.

Going Route to Sprint, and a Big Step Up in Class

The careful reader of Around2Turns may have noticed (yeah, I’m talking to you, Mom!) a recent falloff not only in production (only two posts in July versus twice that many in both May and June) but also in verbosity, logorrhea and redundancy (those two July posts averaged roughly 400 words each, while the May and June posts averaged a blowhardy 1,074 words per).

Thanks to all who wrote in wondering if I had suddenly come up short of breath or was perhaps delving into some sort of experimental literature where you wrote the same way that you always did but later randomly deleted two out of every three paragraphs. It was neither of those.

Rather, you saw the outcome of a conscious decision to see if it was possible to write cogent and thoughtful 400-word pieces about thoroughbred racing. Based on my interpretation of the texts I can’t make head or tails about the thoughtful and cogent part, although they did come in at about that many words and were ostensibly about horse racing, so the way I look at it I’m hitting .500.

These cutbacks in distance were due not to some sudden urge to rein myself in, but, rather, were more like prep races I gave myself before stepping up into stakes-class company. You see, dear reader, some weeks ago Around2Turns was offered the opportunity to be a contributor to the new Blood-Horse Daily, if only I could just ease up on the typing a little so that these wee essays would be able to fit inside a mobile phone app. And, as they say in France … voila!

Here we will insert into Around2Turns a rare serving of a commercial agenda and encourage you to check out the new app. It’s a free download and it’s a smart and functional tool if you like the idea of having news, commentary and results and replays of stakes races all in one push-button place. Just click on this link, provide an email address, download the app, and (in our best Trevor Denman) away we go!

I know what you are thinking. Just the same, I’m going to pretend that you were thinking “Bob, what does this mean for Around2Turns”?  I’d like to tell you that nothing will change around here, and besides updating the wallpaper to a repeating pattern of the Jockey Club logo when the tech guy gets in here at 10:45, nothing ever will.

Who am I kidding? It’s very likely that I will now save my best efforts for the Blood-Horse Daily and what’s left over here will amount to more or less darkened form. (Kidding!) Maybe Around2Turns will morph into more of a traditional blog, with shorter, more frequent, and more casual observations on the racing scene, with a 2,000-word opus thrown in every now and then when suitable. It’s hard to say. This running frequently is still somewhat new to me. Give me a couple of races. Like that president said, or was it Yogi Berra? I’m still a little green around the ears.

 

 

The Spa Treatment

Two summers ago a friend returned to Saratoga after a hiatus of a couple of decades and he couldn’t believe how much the old girl had changed. Well, at least in her backyard area, which, as Catherine Deneuve has suggested, is a choice that all women must face. What my friend had fondly recalled as an idyllic oasis conveniently located astride a bustling racetrack, was now inundated with bars and food stands and other markers of suburban sprawl.

This brought to mind the old science experiment, with my friend being the frog tossed into already boiling water and your narrator as the waterlogged amphibian who had failed to notice that it’s been getting kind of hot in here.

Of course, it’s been many years since Red Smith’s directions to Saratoga (“turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years”) still applied. That Saratoga died a few years after Smith, when the racetrack’s lawyers did away with the free-range saddling area and fences started springing up like weeds, forever separating the horses from the civilians.

Change, of course, is constant. Saratoga, we kidded ourselves, was different. This year there is a feeling – with picnic tables multiplying like rabbits and lovely old shade trees getting the axe to make way for a mini-museum of dubious quality – that things have gotten out of hand. The chief suspect in these crimes against nature is the CEO of the New York Racing Association, Christopher Kay.

Kay was given the job with the mandate to turn NYRA profitable, which makes his assorted price-gougings and nickel-gatherings somewhat understandable. But what stumps us is why someone who knew so little about racing that he needed a Sherpa to help him cram for his lucrative executive position, could all of a sudden feel entitled to mess with Saratoga’s still glorious ambiance by blocking access to the paddock with for-hire picnic tables, and knocking down trees for an entirely unnecessary “museum”.

These failings are emblematic of Kay’s near-total indifference to the concerns of the horseplayer. Which is odd, given the sensitivity he had shown towards endangered species in his previous gig as COO for the TPL (the Trust for Public Land).

And there are other questions we ask at TPL. For example, is the land home to certain species which don’t live anywhere else?

Kay says he will be strolling the backyard this summer and is open to suggestions. Let’s hope some of those endangered horseplayerus saratogians take him up on that, and tell him how they really feel.

The Waiting Room

Even if you started your day knowing absolutely nothing about laminitis, you wouldn’t need to go deep into the Blood-Horse’s story about Lady Eli to find out that it’s bad. Here’s a quote from one of the 3-year-old filly’s co-owners, Jay Hanley of Sheep Pond Partners.

“It’s horrifying and disheartening. If you’re an optimist, you’d say she’ll race again. If you’re a pessimist, she could be battling for her life.”

There’s no need to handicap such a prognosis. Being able to still run if she is lucky but facing euthanasia if she’s not is bad enough. Venturing into the “Comments” section, a risky business on any website but especially so with a story like this, feels like entering an intensive care waiting room. An online prayer circle is haloing the filly, who is almost certainly battling for her life right now regardless of where you fall on optimism and pessimism.

This blogger’s knowledge about laminitis is neither wide nor deep, but when has that ever stopped us? Even with some recent positive results, the dreaded hoof disease still seems to swing closer to incurable than curable. Whatever is working in equine medicine these days, we hope it takes. This ridiculously entertaining filly, whose perfect 6-for-6 record includes a few races where turf course traffic caused her some trouble that she blithely overcame, needs one more big win.

Lady Eli has a lot of love going for her, as evidenced by this photo posted on Twitter by Cherie DeVaux, an assistant to the filly’s trainer, Chad Brown.

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Ms. DeVaux, who in a subsequent tweet copped to being the nose kisser, also informed that Lady Eli does not appreciate being the recipient of public displays of affection. Given the circumstances, Ms. DeVaux gets an allowance for insisting.

So we wait. Right now the American racing scene seems to be all about waiting. Will Lady Eli survive? Will American Pharoah make it all the way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Will California Chrome ever race again? Will all our waiting be in vain?

To all those praying for Lady Eli, keep it up. Contrary to the Jim Morrison lyric, you can petition the lord with prayer: It just might not take. This is why racing’s wise old heads tell you not to fall in love. Lennon and McCartney said it was all you need. But as Joy Division noted, it can also tear us apart.

In Praise of Ephemera

unknown What makes this a great Sports Illustrated cover is not that it’s “collectible”, but, rather, that it could just as easily have been a great cover for Psychology Today. That’s probably what it takes for a sports magazine to cut through today’s media clutter: show a great image that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the Triple Crown result. Anyway, it’s nice to see the venerable weekly get some attention for something other than the depilatory habits of the modern day swimsuit model.

This cover also helped me to resolve something. A couple of days after American Pharoah’s Belmont, two numbers still seemed to me to be slightly out of whack; $3.50 and 90,237.

The first number, of course, is what American Pharoah paid on a $2 win ticket. $3.50 seemed on the high side. Eventually, I chalked it up to the betting public finally coming to the understanding that taking odds-on for a horse to win the Triple Crown was a lousy bet, which, for the last 36 years, anyway, it had been.

The second figure – the 90,000 or so $2 tickets to win on the 5 that remained uncashed two days after the race – seemed wrong, but in the opposite direction. It felt low. Sure, 180 grand in paper souvenirs is not chump change, but considering the possibilities on the resale market and the 90,000-odd people in attendance at Belmont and Aqueduct who were there to witness history and perhaps take home a souvenir or five, it just seemed short. But who can say? With 37 years since a horse last completed the sweep, there had not been any recent points of reference as to how many win tickets on Triple Crown aspirants might typically be purchased as potential souvenirs.

It was seeing that Sports Illustrated cover that finally helped to make sense of the 90,000. Ephemera, or at least the hobby of collecting it, is dead or at least seriously unwell. Sure, a dinner menu from the Titanic or a JFK campaign poster still holds some residual value to somebody somewhere. But if Antiques Roadshow is to be believed, the market value of such things has been in steep decline for quite a few years. The pet theory here is that technology – aka, the Internet – has made such things less valuable because digital images of them are so easily obtainable. Why spend money on the real thing, when a perfectly nice digital representation of the thing is just one free click away?

wa199801A22_00 Of course, the individual selling $2 win tickets on American Pharoah for $29.90 on ebay hopes I’m wrong. This is thoroughly understandable, as getting a 14-1 payoff on a 3/4 probability is the stuff that dreams are made of. Who knows? Maybe 90,000 of these things is a proper inventory in today’s ephemera market. But – and here’s where that Psychology Today bit comes in – I wonder if the current obsession with documenting on our smartphones and on Facebook everything that we do has somehow become a stand-in for the things that we actually used to do.

As part of a generation that entered adulthood without pocket cameras and VCRs – let alone smartphones and YouTube – I suppose that boomers like me are more susceptible to pleasant reveries brought on by yellowed ticket stubs than our millennial juniors. (Of course, even if a millennial had a ticket stub stashed somewhere, it wouldn’t be all that yellowed.) Will a millennial ever dust off his iPhone 6, chuckle at its early-21st-century crudeness, and fondly recall those simpler days of 2015? Maybe living in an era when you actually had to remember something in order to recall it helped make boomers better observers. Millennials can just go right to the digital video, where most of their existence has already been catalogued.

Perhaps the smartphone has simply outrun ephemera. Maybe that ticket stub or program that once proved “I was there!” has been improved upon with “I was there, and this is what it looked and sounded like from where I was standing”. Who needs a shoebox full of ticket stubs and programs tucked away in a closet when you can carry around a digital newsreel of your personal history in your own pocket?

But is more always more? After all, Marcel Proust got quite a bit of mileage out of one small cookie. While living in Paris, James Joyce remembered more of Dublin than Google Earth could ever locate. Maybe absence is the highest form of presence. I dug out my shoebox from the back of the “clubhouse closet”, to put some of my personal ephemera to the test.

Does this one have any meaning to you?

IMG_1139 Not much to go on, I know. Here are some hints. It was the first game of an early-season series against the California Angels, who had a new right fielder obtained via free agency in the off season. In the seventh inning this new Angel hit a home run off of Ron Guidry. New York fans typically would have been averse to such things. Not this time. The 35,458 in attendance burst into wild applause and soon followed that up with a lusty, minutes-long, two-word chant expressing extreme displeasure with Yankee ownership’s off-season decision not to re-sign one Reginald Martinez Jackson. Afterwards, Guidry said that listening to the chant provided just about the only fun he had all night.

What’s amazing today about that long ago night is that the two word chant – “Steinbrenner sucks!” – was considered vulgar or obscene, and would not be repeated the following day in newspapers across the country. As we’ve lately been reminded, times do change, sometimes for the better. But more than 33 years later, this little scrap of paper still manages to bring a smile.

This stroll down a Memory Lane of ticket stubs to baseball games and racing programs soon left me with one distinct observation. Just like other vast social networks, racing also has a long tail, and what you might witness on any given Saturday is often far from the end of the story. Racing does not end when the teletimer stops.IMG_1115_2

My first piece of racing ephemera is a good one. I was on an extended business trip to Tokyo in the fall of 1988 and needed something to do on the weekend. The Japan Cup beckoned. Unable to speak or read Japanese, I spent the day wandering around the crowded race track, making a few bets, watching the races, getting lost in amazement, and falling in love. That day I learned two things: That I knew close to nothing about racing, and that I needed to know much more.

There were two American-trained horses in the Japan Cup that year, and I bet on the wrong one. I eventually came to understand that – while there were many things to know about horse racing – some things could be gleaned only over a longer period of time. While I could have known in 1988 that Robert (Bobby) Frankel was a brilliant trainer, capable of taking an indifferent European grass runner like Pay the ButlerIMG_1119_2 and turning him into a graded stakes winner, who could have ever guessed at what was to follow? That a distant admirer – Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms – would take further note of this, Frankel’s greatest victory to date, and that these two would go on to form one of the great owner/trainer partnerships in the history of thoroughbred racing.

Late last winter I was in a sentimental mood and went rummaging through my carton full of old race programs. You don’t need to buy a program at the NYRA tracks any more, so the one carton should continue to hold things for a while. I flipped slowly through the pages of one from a Saturday at Longchamp in September of 1992. It was a card with several preps for Arc weekend, and there were some good horses in there, such as Subotica (who would win the Arc three weeks later) and Jolypha (who won the Prix Vermeille that day and would finish third to AP Indy and Pleasant Tap in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic). As I scanned through the remainder of the Prix Vermeille field the name of the 10 horse stopped me cold.

It was Urban Sea. IMG_1126 Somehow the name did not stick with me that day (she finished 3rd). When she won the Arc the following year, other than it being an upset, it didn’t mean a thing (I was back in New York, where you could not bet or watch the race). It also didn’t mean much when she sired her first Epsom Derby winner (Galileo). Or even her second (Sea the Stars, making her only the second mare to throw two Epsom Derby winners). Sea the Stars would subsequently win the Arc, making the two of them only the second mother/son combination to win that race. And Urban Sea is, of course, the great Frankel’s paternal grandmother.

Finding out that cold winter night that in fact perhaps the greatest race filly turned broodmare who ever looked through a bridle had once been paraded before me provided a strangely satisfying feeling. Sure, I had not noticed anything special about her back then (I had been fortunate in getting shut out trying to bet Dermot Weld’s Market Booster), but that is entirely the point.

Such is the grandeur and scope of racing that much of the time you don’t really know what you have right in front of you. But if you are patient, and pay attention, in due course you will find out. That 3-year-old filly who seemed to be a few lengths shy of being the best of her generation may just surprise you later on down the line. That nice colt the Saudi prince named for his late trainer from Brooklyn might just turn out to be something special. This Pharoah fellow might finally be the one. The only thing worth holding onto during a race like this year’s Belmont is a pair of binoculars. We have YouTube now. Put down the phone so that everyone can see. All you have to do is watch, and remember.

To Our Absent Backyard Friends (Swiped from Kilmer)

No guest experience will ever be

As fair and lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth once prest

Against Saratoga’s backyard breast

Now lies lifeless on its side

Slain by NYRA’s arborcide

A tree that would in summer wear

A cloak of green that cooled the air

Breathes no more yet inflicts pain

On we who would not stir champagne

This doggerel barks at fools like he

Vain to think could improve a tree