25 July 2007

May the horse be with you ... at Saratoga

Diamonds are Forever movie poster

“The first thing that struck Bond about Saratoga was the green majesty of the elms, which gave the discreet avenues of Colonial-type clapboard houses some of the peace and serenity of a European watering place. And there were horses everywhere, being walked across the streets, with a policeman holding up the traffic, being coaxed out of horseboxes around the sprawling groups of stables, cantering along the cinder borders of the roads, and being led to work on the exercise track alongside the race-course near the center of the town. … It was a mixture of Newmarket and Vichy, and it suddenly occurred to Bond that although he wasn’t in the least interested in the horses, he rather liked the life that went with them.”
-- Diamonds Are Forever, Ian Fleming
Sadly, though I, like Bond, rather like the life that goes with a visit to Saratoga, a trip to the Spa is not on the Quinella agenda this year. Fortunately, for those of us left leading mundane, workaday lives during this coming month, some of the feeling of being at the Saratoga Race Course has been captured in Harvey Pack's May the Horse Be With You: Pack at the Track. With co-author Pete Fornatale, Pack relates the highlights of his long, rollicking career as, well, basically a horseplayer. From childhood days spent reading the Form while saving seats for his dad's friends until his present stint hosting the DRF seminars at Saratoga, Pack's fondest memories involve playing the ponies. Even during his stint in the army, Pack found a way to get paid (sort of!) for handicapping.

I found May the Horse Be With You to be a good book to read while sipping a Rolling Rock on the back porch, as Pack is the racing raconteur my friends wish they could be: witty, irrepressible, and genuinely entertaining. Sprinkled throughout his exuberant tales of life in radio, the launch of the NYRA Paddock Club, and experiences with his recurring nemesis Kenny Noe, Pack offers some insightful observations on the state of racing. One I found particularly interesting:
"What I really loved about the track was the camaraderie. That was the fun for me, and I think it's that way in every sport. In football, you'll hear a guy call in on talk radio, and he'll say, "I'm in Section 18, all my guys are there!" He's proud of where he sits and who his friends are, and it's the same thing at the racetrack. People congregate in the same areas every time they go and friendships are born just as they are in football or baseball between season-ticket holders. Personally, I think the fact that we have parimutuel wagering at the track only increases that feeling of camaraderie, because it becomes a friendly -- or sometimes not so friendly -- competition between friends."
Yet despite this potential for rapport between horseplayers, Pack notes that the track has become "a big TV studio because of simulcasting" and laments the decline of mentoring new fans. Going to the races with your dad is no longer the rite of passage it was when Pack was young, as folks bet the races in the privacy -- and isolation -- of home.

Which is one of the reasons Saratoga is so special. It's a place where you'll see racing forms everywhere, folks congregate in the same places every year, and traffic stops when a horse crosses the street.

Note: The first chapter of May the Horse Be With You is available on the DRF website, and Pack is scheduled to be signing copies at Borders in Saratoga Springs on August 2.


Nellie said...

Yet another book that will need to be added to my collection - thanks for the recommendation!