SARATOGA SPRINGS, N. Y. -- Yours truly will be here at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Whitney and the four undercard stakes, and I will be happy and grateful to be here. Still, a not so small part of me wishes I could be 204 miles to the east, in East Boston, Mass., at Suffolk Downs.
Saturday's card at Suffolk, a mixed bag of 10 races topped by the relatively rich for the circumstances $75,000 Drumtop Stakes, is not the lure for me. The attraction for me is this card will be one of only six this year at Suffolk, and it could be one of the last. Ever. Suffolk has been at death's door since it lost out on a bid for a critical casino license a couple of years ago, and no one really knows how much longer it can go on, even with a very limited racing schedule. And this is very painful for those who well remember how wild the Massachusetts and New England racing scene was years ago, a racing environment that I cut my eyeteeth on.
I first went to Suffolk in the late 1960s, and I have Bill Veeck (yes, baseball's Bill Veeck) to thank for it. Veeck headed a group that purchased Suffolk in that period, and one of the first things he did was get legislation passed allowing minors accompanied by an adult into the track. At that time, you had to be 21 to get into a track in New England. Now free to attend, I tagged along to Suffolk with my dad, a regular who bet on anything and everything day and night, and was bitten by the bug immediately.
Soon after, by 1970 or 1971, I often cut my last class in high school, took the trolley to Suffolk with the tallest kid I knew because he looked old enough to get a bet in, and hid in the deepest, darkest bowels of the grandstand so that my dad wouldn't see me. My dad, who apparently wanted a different life for me, had a box in the clubhouse. And if he caught me at the track on my own, I'd be in for it big time.
New England in the 1970s was an amazing place for a kid to become immersed in this game. More recent converts might be surprised, and a bit envious, to know that there was day/night Thoroughbred racing all year long, not to mention tons of Greyhound and harness racing, too. But it was all about Thoroughbred racing for me, and for me there was Suffolk or Rockingham Park in New Hampshire in the afternoon, Lincoln Downs or Narragansett Park in Rhode Island at night, and Scarborough Downs at night in the summer in Maine, where the mosquitoes were as big as what passes these days for dogs.
There was also Green Mountain in Vermont, the track that was the first east of the Mississippi to offer Sunday racing.
And of course, there were the infamous Massachusetts Fairs. The fairs, bullring tracks at actual week-long town fairs, was a circuit of the cheapest racing imaginable that redefined the term larceny, and where the most infirm horses in the world would somehow manage two or three starts a week. At its peak, the fair circuit consisted of Brockton, Marshfield, Weymouth, Northhampton, Great Barrington, and Berkshire Downs.
I wouldn't trade the education I received at these tracks for anything. Or the fun I had. Suffolk and Lincoln or 'Gansett doubleheaders were commonplace, as were Rockingham and Scarborough doubleheaders. Heck, on some Labor Days, tripleheaders were made. Rockingham always ran a five-race morning card on Labor Day followed by an afternoon card, but you could (and I did) catch Rock's morning card, take in the afternoon card at Suffolk (which foolishly went head to head with Rockingham some years), and then shoot down to Lincoln or 'Gansett, whichever track was racing.
There were also plenty of Saratoga and Green Mountain doubleheaders made. I always found it disconcerting that the jocks at Green Mountain would often play volleyball in the infield in front of the tote board before the races, as friendly as can be, like a family, and then would go out and ride, presumably against each other, for their small cut of a $900 purse.
Suffolk was referred to as the "Oceanside Oval," which I guess it technically is, but it was never to be confused with Del Mar. The old Rockingham was called the "Saratoga of New England." The Rockingham Park prior to the 1980 blaze that took it down was really very nice, but it wasn't Saratoga. And I never had a vivid enough of an imagination to picture Narragansett as host of the famous match race between Alsab and Whirlaway, but it was. Nevertheless, these were great old places.
The very first day I received my driver's license, I commandeered by dad's car and drove to the Brockton Fair to play the card. And I was there with my dad the last day Berkshire Downs, which at one time claimed Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as part owners, ever raced. It had to be the last day. There was a giant sinkhole on the track apron that appeared to be expanding so quickly that, given another day, it might have claimed the actual grandstand.
With the exception of Suffolk, all of these Thoroughbred tracks have gone the way of Berkshire Downs. They are all gone.
I could go on, but I now realize that maybe it's a good thing I won't be at Suffolk Saturday. It might be a bit too tough to take for one who knew what New England Thoroughbred racing used to be, and what it is -- barely -- now.