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.

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