|Roamin' into a Saratoga party|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Miles: 310 (Buffalo to Saratoga via Cooperstown); total miles: 3,180; hours of driving: 6; hours of sleep: 3½; Diet Pepsi: 6 units; bets placed: 2; money lost: $10. fast food stops: 2; last dinner sitting down at a table: can't remember; facial hair: three-day growth. Really need a haircut, really really miss my wife; miles remaining: 200 (estimated) ...
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Morning comes early in Saratoga.
I finished my diary entry on Buffalo about 4:30 Monday morning and crawled into bed about the same time trainer John Terranova woke up in the basement apartment below me to begin his day in the Saratoga barns.
Like countless others in the sport, Terranova rises early seven days a week, 365 days a year, devoting his life to thoroughbred racing. He trains and cares for 30-some horses, arranges jockeys, deals with owners and does far, far more ... essentially doing whatever it takes to turn a horse into a winner. It's a career as demanding as dairy farming, only dairy farmers don't have to travel to four or more tracks a year, and at least they can count on the cows to give milk twice a day.
"I've got about half a stomach left and an intestine missing," Terranova joked. "You have to love it to do it, but the highs and the lows are like nothing else. And the highs make it all worthwhile.
"I guess once it gets in your blood, you can't get away from it."
In your blood? His wife, Tonja, gave birth to their daughter, Paulina, on Kentucky Derby Day last year.
"I remember one night I made a Chinese dinner for John and Tonja," thoroughbred owner George Frustino said. "We had just sat down to eat and this thunder and lightning hit and -- bang! -- they were out the door to see to their horses."
Frustino is an old Buffalo friend of Scooter's, and he was our host for the latest stop on my cross-country tour of sports along Interstate 90. Saratoga is 2,500 miles and several worlds away from my first horse track on this trip -- the Western Montana fair and horse racing's low minors, where jockeys held their boots together with duct tape and bulls ranged in the infield. Saratoga, on the other hand, is the Augusta of the sport. There are no bull-riding exhibitions here as there were in Missoula. Horses began racing here during the Civil War, which is also about the last time I cashed a winning ticket.
About the only negative to Saratoga is that its annual summer meet lasts just six weeks, with six days of racing a week from late July to Labor Day. The season is a special time up here in the old playground of the Whitneys and the Astors, but like a heavily anticipated race, it ends far too quickly.
Still, during those six weeks, Frustino said, "The whole town is focused on one thing, horse racing."
No kidding. There are lawn jockeys lining the Victorian homes, horse statues lining the downtown sidewalks and even actual thoroughbreds crossing the streets on their way to the track. The shops are filled with equine art and photos of past champions, and the restaurants serve race-themed dishes.
Saratoga's massive wood grandstand holds tens of thousands of fans, and many more fill the expansive picnic grounds, sitting on folding chairs beneath stately trees and watching the races on TV monitors. Beneath a small pagoda, drinking water spills from the Big Red Springs. The grounds are so pleasant that it almost takes the edge off tearing up a losing exacta ticket.
I kept looking for an Astor or a Vanderbilt, or at the very least, a Baldwin, but all I saw are thousands upon thousands of bettors in all manner of dress (more than 66,000 showed up the day before I was there). Some wore crisp blue blazers and loafers. Others wore shorts and T-shirts, even though signs warned that "No abbreviated" wear is allowed in the clubhouse boxes (the rule is widely ignored).
Residents can rent out their homes for so much money during the season that they can cover their expenses for the entire year, but Frustino graciously allowed us to spend the night in his house near the track, sharing the residence with Terranova and his young family. We were so close to the track that two of Monday's winning horses slept in a barn practically within a horseshoe toss of my bed.
A lifelong horse racing junkie -- he would skip afternoon classes to catch races at the Fort Erie track -- Frustino now owns horses and recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by having a horse run here.
It was a long road here for the horse, Really Tough. Its mother, Wicked Scent, had been mated in 1998, only to roll over and accidentally kill the foal the day after delivering it a year later. Mated again, Wicked Scent produced Really Tough. Two years later, Really Tough finally was ready to race but, come the big day, he wouldn't go in the gate. They finally got him in there and the gate opened. He stumbled a bit out the gate, but recovered and took the lead before being passed near the final turn. He fought back impressively, though, and nearly caught the other horse. The race ended in a photo finish, and Frustino sweated that one out. Then there was an inquiry, and he sweated that out. In the end, his horse still lost.
And bettors think they have a lot at stake when they wager a $10 quinella.
I bet two losers Monday, which presents this awkward question: How can I hide my losses on the expense report? Between races, Scooter noticed that one of the horses was on Lasix and advised us that part of his treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma was receiving Lasix: "I don't know what it did for the lymphoma, but I was ready to run four furlongs."
Edgar Prado is one of the sport's best jockeys, and after he won the second and fifth races, Scooter bet him to win the sixth. He finished second that race and was disqualified for bumping. Scooter weighed whether to bet him for the seventh race and decided no. Naturally, Prado won it. He weighed whether to bet him in the eighth race and again decided no. When the No. 3 horse won, he shook his head.
"Don't tell me," he said.
"Yep," I told him. "Prado."
These are the sort of things that can drive a man nuts.
We watched our final race from the backstretch, where the many track employees watch and bet as well. The focus may be on the jockey and the horse, but armies of people are behind them -- grooms, stewards, hot-walkers, exercise riders, blacksmiths, vets, acupuncturists, etc, many of whom will work two or three jobs, in the barns in the morning and perhaps tearing tickets in the afternoon. "There are entire industries here and industries within industries," Frustino said.
It isn't an easy life. Bad hours and low pay -- most grooms make $300 to $350 a week.
This may be the big leagues, but the people here work just as hard and sacrifice just as much as the jockeys at the Western Montana fair. If not more. The farther I travel on this I-90 tour, the more I realize how hard athletes at all levels work to compete in their sports. But whether you are racing for a $1,000 purse or a $1 million payoff, whether the track's parking lot is filled with 20-year-old pickups in need of a new muffler or brand new Mercedes with T-BREDS vanity plates, what is really pulling the reins here is a love of the sport.
It's why Terranova left Boston College so he could work at the track, tying himself down to a relentless schedule of dawn wakeup calls and seasonal moves from one track to the next.
Saratoga does not race Tuesdays, which is the only day that can be considered light, so Monday night was a big night to relax and drink some beer. "It's karaoke night tonight," Terranova said with a yawn as we prepared to leave.
Ah, life in the big leagues.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.