by Kevin Cox
It would all start with a list.
A few days before we'd leave, it would be on my father's dresser. "Q Tips, Listerine, pens, socks, underwear...", and on and on it went. One would think he was Jimmy Hoffa going away for a stretch, but in reality, it was how he would prepare for our two night excursion to Saratoga year after year. Obviously, normative society doesn't feel compelled to itemize the most trivial minutia for a 48 hour pass to nirvana, but this wasn't just any Saratoga fan. This was the uuber fan. The greatest Saratoga fan outside of that one in your family...or your co workers' family...or maybe your neighbor... You get the idea.
We'd shove off at 5:15 in the morning. A time that didn't work for me then, and works even less for me know. He, on the other hand, was as bright eyed and bushy tailed as whatever bushy tailed is supposed to mean. We'd roll into town too early to check in, but that was okay, because we'd go right to the Spa City diner for breakfast. Traditions, you know. After breakfast, while I'd be playing a video game or two in the now abandoned entranceway, he'd be at the table performing origami with his brand new Racing Form. Ripping out the tracks not needed, ( Simulcast ? What's that?? ) then re-folding it so it fit perfectly into the back pants of his shorts pocket. ( Which of course were accessorized with matching hush puppies, because isn't that what fathers do ? )
We'd then check into the best kept secret in town -- the Brentwood motel. Located a horseshoe's throw from the seven furlong chute, and across the street from some breakfast joint which is now the hot spot to go after the races---assuming of course, that you don't want to hear what someone six inches away from you is saying. He would take me to watch the horses enter the starting gate in the morning. It wasn't our place to venture farther than that, you know, but that was okay, because that was the world to an 8 year old.
We'd head over to the races, and go right upstairs to make sure that the plastic owls hanging from the rafters hadn't flown off over the winter. Of course they hadn't, but tradition, you know. We'd meander over to the Big Red Spring for a funny tasting water, but you didn't mind it because they'd give you these nifty red and white souvenir cups. ( A tradition that has since gone the way of periodontists' mouth rinsing dixie cups, but waddya gonna do? )
We'd watch 'em get saddled before the race, then he'd watch me try to get an autograph from a rider who was just beaten by 30. We'd go and sit by the same area in the paddock under the tree, which was a nice little tradition, until someone needed a condo built there. On rainy days we'd scoot to a bench under the old scratch board inside from where the bandshell is. Yes, men would walk out on a catwalk and write all of the changes & results on a giant board, then go back through a door that was as mysterious to me as how that quarter kept ending up under my pillow through the years.
"Can you taste the twin lobsters, Pat?", he would gleefully say throughout the day to my mother ( and the months leading up to that day ) as tradition dictated that we dine at the long gone Weathervane restaurant. $9.95 they were, with a coupon from The Pink Sheet. He never bought a Pink Sheet, but we always ended up with the coupon somehow. He made sure that he had the last bite of the last lobster on the table. Not because he was pacing himself, mind you, but because tradition said that he had to torture my mother over it.
We'd play a round of mini golf afterwards at Murphy's right next door. It's still there these days, but you'd need to use your imagination to remember playing the "Starting Gate" hole, or even the long straightaway of "The Yaddo". Think hard enough, and you can even remember the sounds of your old man holing one out on the "Skee Ball" hole.
Maybe it wasn't a successful day at the track ( for the $10 you bet ), or maybe you got snubbed on a few autographs, but you didn't care, because you were in receipt of something much more valuable at the time. Something passed on that you can never lose, or forget, or put a price tag on.
Those days are long gone, and my father is as well. When he moved on, I asked Bill Nader of NYRA if we could do a race dedication for him and have a plaque put where my parents sat. "Gee Kevin, that may be hard" he glumly said in his office "if we did that then everyone would want one. When was his birthday?" he asked. "August 13", I told him. After an odd stare and a substantial pause, he said "That was MY father's birthday. Where do you want the plaque?"
Something about fathers and sons.
The plaque was unveiled, the race was run, and who was the winner? "The Daddy", of course. Why wouldn't it be?
Every year afterwards, my mother would sit there during her summer sojourns. Getting as close to him as possible. A catharsis, of sorts.
On the night of her passing a few years ago, just before she left ( during the Saratoga meet, no less ), I said "Mom, just give me any sign that you're with him, and that all is well. That you're both happy." Two hours later I entered her house only to find it burglarized. Only it wasn't burglarized at all. A picture had fallen off the wall and landed unbroken on the floor...It was the winners' circle photo of "The Daddy"---with my mother in it. They were together again, in his favorite place---and a list wasn't needed to ensure a good time.
So today I'll give the plaque a bit of a shine, and sit there and sip a beer with Bijou, just as I have done every year.
Because tradition dictates it, you know...
This homage was published the last two years, but has been brought back by popular demand. Additionally, if this annual piece about Bijou resonated a certain way, you'll be happy to know that I was asked to do a reading for "Our American Stories" (1.7 million weekly listeners), and while the verbiage is pretty much the same, there are some subtle differences, including background music, click HERE.
This article originally appeared on Saratoga Bets and is published here with permission.