For years, I carried in my wallet a winning ticket from the Saratoga Race Course.
The ticket was folded like a receipt, frayed at the corners, and tucked away with old business cards I'd never looked at. Every few months, I'd pull it out, open it and read the printed words:
Race 9 $2 WIN 4.
For many people, that's mere jargon. But for me, that ticket conjured a scene:
The sun rises over Saratoga's backstretch; a dark bay colt, nostrils flared, muscles like pipes, roars down the stretch, then gradually eases to a gallop beneath the reins of his famous jockey.
There was an honesty to watching a powerful, majestic animal rip through dawn at 40 mph. Little seems impossible if a two-ton beast, running on ankles that appear the thickness of chopsticks, can reach highway speeds with a man clinging to his back.
That ticket was like my framed photo after riding the roller coaster. Race 9 was the 2007 Travers Stakes, known affectionately as the Midsummer Derby, contested atop Saratoga's famous dirt. No. 4 in the race was Street Sense, the dark bay colt with the famous jockey, winner of that year's Kentucky Derby. I put my money on Street Sense, not because I wanted the profit (he turned my $2 into $2.70), but because I wanted the souvenir. (My dad always wondered why, if I was simply buying the paper and not making the bet, I hadn't just put down $1. Good question.)
I have a love-ambivalence relationship with horse racing. And every year around this time, as the country starts talking about the Kentucky Derby, I'm reminded why. I remember the moments I've stood, rooted to the ground, mesmerized by a horse's grace and beauty. But I also remember the moments I've been disgusted by the sticky floor of the grandstand; by the desperation of men rustling in their pockets for one final crumpled buck to put on the long shot; by the ostentatiousness of horse owners, climbing the stairs to luxury boxes above it all. Nowhere else in America does the seediness created by gambling collide so directly with the beauty created by sport.
I grew up a half-hour from Saratoga Springs. During the winter, the town is covered in snow, hibernating in upstate gloom. During the summer, it feels as if someone turned a spotlight on the place; the town glows. When I was a kid, my family packed a cooler and found a bench near the top of the stretch. It was then that my love, and my ambivalence, for horse racing took root.
Nearly everyone else in my family developed an affinity for the sport: dad, sister, uncles, cousins. Their passion was driven by a skill for handicapping and the thrill of the final turn for home. The only part that ever grabbed my heart was being near the horses. So while my family was hunched over their programs, pens circling crucial information -- weight, previous distances, all-time results -- I would walk down to the paddock and watch the horses amble from the barn toward the starting gate. Trainers delivered final words of advice to jockeys before boosting them into the saddle. Inevitably, in those few minutes, I'd fall in love with one of the horses.
But the one I loved most was Street Sense. In my mid-20s, I moved back home to work at a small newspaper. I lived in downtown Saratoga Springs, in a walk-up apartment above Caroline Street, the town's famous party block. Saratoga's motto is "The August Place to Be," and for those four weeks, the street floods with people as if a dam has broken; no car even attempts to pass. Everyone is high from a day at the races, winding down over jack and cokes, wine and stories of the horse that made good.
I loved racing that summer. Saratoga will make you love it: the charming, historic tree-lined downtown; the Victorian homes stacked high like wedding cakes; the sweat-slicked horses, their chests still heaving, crossing the street from oval to barn. I once walked through the turnstile with legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was carrying a cooler, the day's program tucked under his arm. Somehow, he looked like everyone else -- just coming to watch the horses run.
Part of my job at the newspaper was covering the races, which meant waking early to watch the morning runs. Street Sense had been a Triple Crown hopeful, but he had lost the second leg, the Preakness, by a bob of the head. His owners and trainers then set their sights on the Travers, which at the time carried a purse of $1 million, along with a lot of prestige.
Trainers are often coy about when a horse runs. There are tales of old-time trainers switching tracks at the last minute or leading look-alike horses from the barn as decoys. In the 1930s, Seabiscuit worked out in the middle of the night to avoid the chaos and scrutiny of a public showing. The morning of Street Sense's scheduled workout, I awoke in the dark, stopped at Stewart's for a coffee and parked my car in the grass near Saratoga's training oval, known as the Oklahoma Track. Finding Street Sense was like a wild goose chase. Was he in his assigned barn? Would he run on the Oklahoma, or had they switched him to the main track? Would he run at all? Maybe they snuck him out in the middle of the night? I wandered through the maze of barns, the sounds of baying horses and the smell of manure strong, until I felt I had gathered accurate intel. Then I pinned myself to what I believed was the correct rail. And I waited.
That morning, a fog had settled over the track. The sun was a line of gold on the horizon, and everyone was yawning, sipping coffee and convincing each other that they hadn't missed anything. Then Street Sense burst through the fog, his ears flicked back, his hooves kicking up dirt. Jockey Calvin Borel, the famous southern boy with the Louisiana drawl, was aboard, casual in jeans and cowboy boots, urging his horse along with something akin to camaraderie. The pair pulled up after the assigned distance, and a few minutes later, Borel turned Street Sense around to talk shop with someone along the rail. Horse and jockey idled a few feet away from me, no distinguishing colors or numbers on their backs. Just a man on a horse. A very fast horse.
Street Sense made quick work of my ambivalence. He was easy to love. And a few days later, I joined 40,000 other spectators on a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon. I didn't, and still don't, bet the horses much. I'm just no good at it. My sister and dad make reads on multiple races at once, so sure is their understanding of the numbers. But that day in 2007, I knew Street Sense would win -- as did much of the betting public -- and I wanted to watch him do it. I placed my bet at the window, then stood somewhere near the rail, on tiptoes to see over the throng, as the dark bay colt held off an upstart named Grasshopper. I walked away, content, the moment after he crossed the wire.
I have never found falling in love with horse racing hard. But staying in love with it is. My dad and sister are getting together this weekend to watch (and bet) the Derby -- as they do each year. I'm invited, but the invitation is an afterthought, a courtesy so I don't feel excluded. Which, of course, I do. Horse racing appears to them in Technicolor, each race fireworks, each bet an opportunity. But I'm now far removed from the intimacy offered by Saratoga's rail, from the honesty present during an early-morning workout.
Street Sense retired a few years ago. At some point, I must have tossed out his winning ticket. I don't remember doing it.