Racing at Saratoga this summer has been as good as ever despite the fact that two of the nation's leading horses and top attractions as well—Bold Ruler and Gallant Man-were only on the grounds to be seen and not raced.
Bold Ruler made a farewell parade under silks two weeks ago before being shipped to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to start his new career in stud, while Gallant Man used the month to freshen up for what could be a climactic pair of meetings with Kerr Stable's doggedly determined Round Table in Atlantic City's United Nations Handicap (Sept. 13) and Belmont's Woodward Stakes (Sept. 27).
But the big moment at Saratoga came last Saturday when the sapphires of New York's juveniles came out, as they almost always do, for Saratoga's ancient and storied Hopeful. In the small field of five maturing colts we got a look at two standouts, Christopher T. Chenery's First Landing and E. Leigh Cotton's First Minister. Their six-and-a-half-furlong meeting was a contest for little more than half a mile before First Landing—by Turn-to out of Hildene—drew off to his seventh straight victory with almost unbelievable superiority over colts of no uncommon ability.
His smashing success (attained in 1:17[3/4]) had many a Saratoga old-timer comparing him to some fine youngsters that previous Hopefuls have produced: Native Dancer, Middleground, Needles and Nashua, to name just a few.
Not only did Chenery, who raced Hill Prince just a few years back, take the top 2-year-old colt race, but he also won The Spinaway, the meeting's top 2-year-old filly race as well with Rich Tradition. Only seven owners have ever won both these historic races for the top male and female juveniles, and neither race is exactly a puppy on the racing calendar. This was the 67th Spinaway; the 54th Hopeful.
While the 2-year-old season does not end with the Hopeful and The Spinaway, the feeling here is that if there is anything capable of beating First Landing it had better show itself soon. But it must always be remembered that there are three hard and lucrative months of racing ahead, and other young colts, the likes of Restless Wind, Tomy Lee, Watch Your Step, Landing, Pilot, Intentionally, Atoll, Mr. Vale, Dunce, Demobilize, Finnegan, Sword Lancer and Crafty Skipper, might be worth keeping an eye on.
The thing about Saratoga that seems to separate it from other cities whose principal trade comes from racing is that while it openly pursues the tourist dollar it isn't opposed to giving the spender a fair return on investment made.
This year, those who judge racing solely on the spin of the turnstiles and the jingle of the mutuel machines had a wonderful time mocking Saratoga. But they didn't take into consideration layoffs and other pangs of recession at the General Electric plant and American Locomotive in nearby Schenectady made it hard for many to stretch the amusement dollar the 30-odd miles to the race track. Attendance was down about 9% and mutuel handle off 8½%. But this year at most U.S. tracks the figures have been declining.
Saratoga, even though its old hotels like the Grand Union and The United States have been replaced with such modern conveniences as supermarkets and parking lots, still is able to maintain much of its Old World charm. Granted, the nightclubs and gambling halls of the past are now only nostalgic memories for summer visitors. But the elm-hooded streets still summon people back year after year to the easygoing company of the landlady on Caroline Street, the unhurried conversations of the bartenders at the Colonial Tavern or the sprawling brickwork of the Gideon Putnam Hotel.
It is at Saratoga where the common denominator is a love or fascination for racing and where this traditionally respected bond brings people happily together. All kinds of people, Anita Bonanno (above) for instance, a 19-year-old secretary from Binghamton, N.Y., who saw her first horse race in 1954. Miss Bonanno manages to go racing downstate for about eight weekends a year, but she reserves her special affections for Saratoga. "I bet three or four races a day," says Anita, "either $2 or $5. I'm about $50 ahead at Saratoga. I do my own handicapping and like to go for a horse about 4 to 1. I study up on the past performances all I can, and the first thing I look for is class. I don't know enough about breeding to recognize class, but what I mean is that I try to find the allowance horse who is dropping down in class to the claiming races. Like most women, I'll play a hunch bet on a horse just because I think he looks pretty. If it comes to deciding between anunknown owner and trainer and one of the famous stables, I'd probably go for the unknown because I always like an underdog.
"You know, everyone at Saratoga, not only just the clubhouse people, can walk around in the paddock and be close to the horses and trainers and jockeys. I don't understand a lot of the things I see, but I love to be close to what's going on. As far as I'm concerned, Belmont is set up for the clubhouse people. Saratoga is for everyone."
John Karboski is another regular at Saratoga. Befitting his position as a 56-year-old statistician for a Wall Street brokerage house, Karboski is a man of routine habit. Aside from the necessary habit of commuting daily for 50 weeks a year from his Greenwich Village hotel to his office, he has developed another habit for Saturdays and holidays. Karboski boards the first race train out of Pennsylvania Station and goes to whichever of the local tracks is operating near Manhattan. For two weeks in August he takes his vacation at Saratoga, pays $25 a week for a room, eats out catch-as-catch-can, takes one glassful of spring water from a well at the head of the homestretch and then settles down to spend seven hours a day, six days a week at the race track.
"One of the main reasons I like Saratoga," says Karboski, "is the wonderful air and the chance to walk. In New York five days a week I never get to walk. There's no way to be outside and get a breath of fresh air in the bargain. Up here I walk three miles a day."
Until this year Karboski hadn't bothered to keep track of his racing finances, but estimates that maybe once since 1942 had he managed to finish the season as much as $100 ahead. "This season I'm keeping records: I'm about $40 behind for the Saratoga meeting and $175 for the whole season. But as a cold proposition on finances I know I'd be out a lot more than that—and without having had the fun—if I had spent the same amount of time going around to bars and nightclubs." Although he has a clubhouse pass for Saratoga, Karboski prefers to sit in the grandstand, where he can see better. "I always get to the track three hours before the first race," says he. "There are only 800 unreserved seats, so I get there early and lay claim to one of the best ones. Then I sit down and read The New York Times, and when I get through with the Times I start in doping the races. I do my own figuring, too. When I get through my figuring I rent a pair of field glassesfor $1, maybe grab a sandwich, and before you know it the first race is on. I'm strictly a $2 bettor, straight only—no big plunger me. Ninety percent of the time I try to beat the favorite; I'll play a horse from 3 to 1 up as high as 30 to 1—but I won't bet every race, either. I'm not in this to make money—I do it strictly as a sport."
GONNA BET UNTIL HE DIES
Jim Magner, at 77 and with failing eyesight, remains the typical example of the sharp, smooth-talking regular who is full of advice for everyone. Jim is unemployed, a some-time friend of most oldtimers, a giver of somewhat dubious advice and a self-appointed authority on all racing matters. By his own count he has never missed a day of racing in New York or any other city when he's been near an operating track. "I haven't missed a day in New York this year," he brags, "and I don't intend to until I die." Nobody can quite recall ever seeing Jim Magner pay his own admission, and yet there he is every afternoon in the middle of the clubhouse giving advice to those who will listen and insisting that his own meager $2, $6, $10 bets enable him to make expenses and pay rent money for his hotel. "I admit I'm behind $200 at this meeting," he told me somewhat sheepishly the other day, "but I'd have been ahead if it hadn't been that I got beat a nosefor a $320 double last week."
Jim believes that racing somehow prolongs the human life. "Racing occupies the mind, makes you sleep better and keeps you going longer. Sitting at home in a rocking chair you die at 45. Here, where I've been coming for over 60 years, it's an old person's paradise. You can watch the old ladies any day. They come and sit under the elms, bet $2 on the daily double and then spend the rest of the afternoon betting $2 to show—and loving it. Just look at their faces and you know they're having fun. Why don't I bet $2 to show? Listen, I bet to win. And I'm not fussy about betting favorites, either. The odds make no difference, for, as the old saying goes, half a loaf is better than an empty belly."
To me, these people are Saratoga just as much as the owners and trainers and jockeys whose names are familiar to every reader of the sports page. They're the people who help to make this track, with its rustic and friendly surroundings, one of the truly happy stops on the racing circuit.
RACING NEOPHYTE Anita Bonanno enjoyed being close to the paddock action.
OLD LOYALIST James Magner found that track helped preserve his young dreams.
MIDDLE-AGED DEVOTEE John Karboski loved his daily three-mile sunlit strolls.