Miles from Miami, Saratoga racing puts everyone – even Bill Parcells – at easeBy Hal Habib Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 10:47 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010
Posted: 5:11 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010
The opening of Dolphins training camp was only a few days away. Word had just come that a starting defensive lineman was out for the year because of injury. Yet Bill Parcells had not a care in the world, it seemed.
Parcells had settled into the box seats at Saratoga Race Course. Even though he couldn’t sit in his box – the rain had flooded it – it was opening day.
And opening day at Saratoga – heck, any day at Saratoga – is a good day.
“What really makes it special is every time I’ve ever been here, I’ve been happy,” said Parcells, the Dolphins’ executive vice president of football operations. “This is a happy place for Bill Parcells.”
It must be. The last time Parcells spoke to the South Florida media was about the time this track was being constructed – following the Battle of Gettysburg.
But take Parcells out of aqua and orange and slip him into a summer-bright white shirt and yellow jacket, take away his football roster and hand him the Daily Racing Form, and, instead of the Colts, let him scout out colts. Then watch what happens.
“It’s a great place to be in the summer,” said Parcells, who has a home here. “The weather’s good. The golf is good. The races are good. The town is excited. There are a lot of good places to eat. It’s very relaxing and it’s just a nice, upstate place to be.”
Parcells first made the trip around the mid-’80s. He returned the following year, and before he knew it, “it gets to be a habit,” meaning aside from having built Super Bowl champions, Parcells is just like the other 25,000 who show up daily in this cathedral of racing.
Maybe it’s the mountains. Or walking amid the tall elms on the winding paths leading to a wooden grandstand – with an emphasis on “grand.” The gentlemen in coats, ladies in exquisite hats and the pretzel-clutching children in heaven. It’s fans showing up for the trackside buffet breakfast at 7 a.m. even though post times don’t start until at least 1 p.m.
This is the nation’s oldest racetrack, having begun operations across the street in 1863. You name them, they ran here. Secretariat. Affirmed vs. Alydar. Seabiscuit liked it so much, he ran both on track and onscreen (they filmed the movie here). Notorious gamblers ran here, too, using the joint to elude New York City authorities in the olden days.
“From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years,” columnist Red Smith wrote. Today, it’s closer to 150 years.
“Horse heaven,” track announcer Tom Durkin said. “A bit of a social whirl in an authentic, Victorian place.”
Trainer Nick Zito, inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame across the street, added, “It’s spiritual. Look at it. You don’t get this anywhere else.”
Blink and it’s over. Such is the nature of this meet because it lasts roughly six weeks (July 23 through Sept. 6) and because only the swiftest survive.
“Even if you win a small (race) here, I think more people notice,” trainer Ken McPeek said. “You could win 10 someplace else and nobody cares. But winning here, it’s tough. It’s the best horsemen, the best riders, the best of everything.”
Jack Knowlton arrived in 1969, Bill Heller three years later and Dave Smith 10 years after Heller. At the time, Knowlton and Heller were college students and Smith was an elementary school teacher seeking a summer job.
They haven’t left yet. Probably never will.
“It’s my summer home,” said Smith, an usher. “The box-holders here are my second family.”
Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, they’re all here.
Smith also carries the trophy to the winner’s circle for the daily feature race.
“Sometimes I’ve said I would do this for nothing,” he said.
Parcells sits in Smith’s section.
“Oh, he’s a great guy,” Smith said, bemoaning that Parcells is only able to come for the start of the meet since he joined the Dolphins.
Heller was an Albany State student when he arrived.
“On my first visit to a thoroughbred track, I got to see Secretariat win the Hopeful Stakes,” said Heller, who covers Saratoga for Thoroughbred Style Magazine and has written several books, including Saratoga Tales and a recent biography of jockey Randy Romero.
“The Hopeful was amazing because he was last heading into the far turn, and he just swooped by the whole field like that (snapping his fingers). I said, ‘Oh my God.’ How could you not become a fan of thoroughbred racing after that?”
Knowlton was a grad student who incorporated trips to Saratoga into his curriculum. Somewhat.
“I got a lot of math in here,” he said.
Addition or subtraction?
“Probably subtraction from my pocket, but I learned, and here we are, 40 years later.”
Knowlton once found himself in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs when he was the managing partner of Sackatoga Stable, which owns Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner.
“It all started here,” said Knowlton, who credits Funny Cide for allowing him to obtain a box at the track. He said it also allows him to attend the No. 1 event of each summer in Saratoga Springs, the gala thrown by Marylou Whitney, the socialite who maintains a seasonal home in Palm Beach.
Whitney arrived in the late ’50s with her previous husband, the late Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney.
“We didn’t intend to stay at all,” she said. “It was so much fun. I said, ‘This is wonderful. Let’s move here!'” Whitney became known as the queen of Saratoga.
She and her husband, John Hendrickson, sponsor and attend an event for stable workers every evening from July 23 to Sept. 5, such as a bingo game awarding $250 gift certificates. That’s in addition to parties.
“Sometimes, she has five events a night,” Hendrickson said. “Last year, we were having dinner with (New York Gov. David) Paterson and Marylou said, in the middle of dinner, ‘Would you excuse me for 25 minutes?'”
On a recent sunny afternoon a few days into the meet, fans wheeled in coolers and staked out picnic tables amid the trees and toteboards. Michael Geraghty was in the coveted spot he has had for 21 years, selling racing paintings.
“Having one of these spots is akin to an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City,” he said. “You don’t have this atmosphere at any other track in the country. It’s almost more like a resort than a day at the track.”
Saratoga is not immune to today’s economy. The strapped New York Racing Association received a $25 million loan from the state in May to open the track.
“I never thought they would close,” Zito said. “It’s 25 minutes from Albany. That’s where these guys (lawmakers) live. … If they ever want to get elected, there’s no way.”
The population triples to 75,000 during the meet. Downtown, it’s equines everywhere, from the “Remarkable Finish” beauty salon to colorful statutes.
“It’s just a wonderful place,” Parcells said. “It’s hard for me to explain what it does for me. It’s relaxing, but it’s exciting.”
Is it easier to pick a good horse or football player?
“For me, it’s easier to pick a football player, because I know what I’m looking at,” said Parcells, who has owned racehorses. “I don’t know what I’m looking at here all the time.”
But he was doing OK on opening day.
“I was lucky in the first race,” he said.
In South Florida awaited the headaches of running a pro football team, including the injury to defensive end Phillip Merling, who is out for the year.
But on this day, Bill Parcells was 1,442 miles away.
That’s 150 horse years.