The smile comes later.
That’s the best description we could come up with back home in Steubenville, Ohio, during what would become a pre-Saratoga party. Your intrepid BTB reporter had rolled north from down-home West Virginia in the style of Junior Johnson. The little car kept to the speed limit, but the load of liquor was the same.
Three cases of white lightning. (Well, six of the 36 jars were straight shine, with no flavor added.)
The only brave soul I saw on the trip smile right away after a drink of the stuff was the legendary Kingab. It thrilled me to death when the Big Buckeye became an instant fan of the Apple Pie. As a dutiful Little Buckeye, I delivered some more the next day.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
There were four thoroughbred racetracks between Old Itchy and Saratoga when a rented Chrysler 300 hotrod set off in the night to retrieve one Donny Beisbol from the Albany International Airport. His flight from Chicago, where he had been keeping a good eye on both Cadet and Extra Medium, was to arrive at 9:15 a.m.
Leaving Steubenville at 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31, your personal Junior Johnson traveled past Mountaineer Park, Mahoning Valley, Presque Isle Downs and Finger Lakes on his way to the best track of them all, the Spa.
A welcome comfortable chair next to Dunkin Donuts gave me a nice spot to rest and watch for Donny. A reporter always is watching, and I observed some heartwarming scenes as people either ran into the arms of loved ones or bade another a fond goodbye.
It was the first of many “good spots,” as Saratoga race fans like to say, that lucky Old Itchy would find this week.
Sure enough, there came the man walking out of the terminal, just as Ralph Steadman must have done those many years ago to greet Hunter S. Thompson in Louisville.
Unable to check into our rooms until that afternoon, Beisbol and I made the only decision we could make in that situation. We went to the track.
Arriving early for the only time that week, we broke open another surprise stashed away in the cooler. Before leaving Steubenville, I had purchased Italian subs from Federico’s Market.
I still cannot believe Donny ate the whole thing. In about three servings, to be fair.
Having played this wonderful game at Derbyfever.com for nigh on 20 years, I already knew what a wonderful human being my friend Donny Beisbol was. However, that impression only deepened when I overheard him talking to his daughter on the cell phone as we sat on a bench near the rail.
“I’m here with my friend, Tim” he told her, and then he listened and asked all kinds of good questions about what she was doing back home in California.
It was clear that this great game had once again led me to meet a fellow player whom I could count as a good friend.
That first day, Donny and I took it easy, both of us tired from our journeys. When we made it to our hotel, a Grateful Dead fan paid me the first of many compliments I would get on my wild golf shirts.
“Hey! Jerry Garcia!” he called from the balcony.
“That’s right,” I smiled back, and we talked a little while. Unlike Hunter Thompson in “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Old Itchy is just a little too kind to play any sort of tricks on strangers. Besides, I enjoy compliments on my shirts.
The party really got started on Thursday, the day of our banquet at Angelo’s Prime Bar and Grill.
My friend Jason is the manager, and he treated us great again. We got his best waitress, and Paula made sure everybody knew how important our group was to her that night.
We ended up with eight of us in the same room which saw the raucous party in 2015. We were much better behaved this year, and it was a fine time indeed. This year’s event was attended by Trotter and his wife Karen, Frankster and his wife Jo, my new friend Ray and his wife Donna, and of course Donny and me.
So this year, I can count four new friends.
Trotter had cautioned things might not be as fun this year with the wives there but that’s the only thing he was wrong about all week. Trotter cashed one ticket after another and left Saratoga a winner, a tremendous accomplishment.
Once again, I had a ton of fun with my New York City friends. I want to make it absolutely clear how much I appreciate the very kind treatment from all six of you.
Pete’s lifetime buddy Ray had hustled us a great spot in the rain on Friday. You know how I know it’s a great spot? Because it’s the same spot where Kingab always sits.
It rained really hard the first part of the day on Friday and if not for Ray, we would have all gotten soaked. As it was, we had a cozy little spot out of the rain.
Every so often, Ray would come over and ask, “Hey Tim! You want a drink of water?”
I finally learned. The last time, I just stuck out my tongue.
“Now you’re getting it,” he laughed.
Only true New Yorkers like Pete, Frank and Ray can bust so many balls and be considerate at the same time.
Mine were not the only ones got busted, either. Consider one Irad Ortiz, who got plenty on more than one trip past.
“HEY IRAD, YOU GOTTA DO SUMTIN!!!!!!” Ray called out.
We all laughed. Irad did not.
There was more frivolity to come in that exact spot. Kingab showed up on Saturday, and his faithful fellow Buckeye fan was waiting.
A trip to Target earlier that week had scored two plastic bottles of the perfect size. Wouldn’t you know it? Perfect to carry a jar of shine.
I got a big kick out of how much Larry and his pals enjoyed the Best of West Virginia. One of them laid a big cigar on me in return that had me dizzy the whole next day. (Actually, that was Whitney Day and there was more than one thing making me dizzy then).
And now, as the ring announcer says, the main event.
Whitney Day 2018 was nothing short of my greatest day of all at a track. I never had so much fun, and only very rarely made so much money.
It all started at the sale barns. Knowing his way around, Donny led me from barn to barn, past Coach Bill Parcells, who we saw for the second time that week. At the first barn, I stood outside the fence observing a conversation between a sales manager and a potential buyer, who seemed awfully serious as he spoke in a foreign language.
“I know who that is,” Donny whispered. “I’ll tell you who later.”
It was Cristophe Clement. Donny wanted to see the American Pharoahs, so we shoved off. It’s been almost 20 years that I worked in a similar environment, as a groom in Virginia. The walk through the barns was as if I stepped into a time machine. The particular odors trigger the memory most sharply.
I had almost as much fun observing the people as the beautiful horses. At one barn, a young Spanish-speaking groom was joking and drawing the ire of his fellow workers. It just so happened he was goofing off outside the fence when a customer wanted to see his horse. The boss walked up and demanded “Where’s Vicente?”
An older groom pointed and shouted “VICENTE! CABALLO!”
The young man came running, and the boss chewed out the other employee who had been talking to Vicente.
The potential buyers were interesting to study. One of them was looking at one of the American Pharoahs and noticed a flaw in his walk. Donny noticed defects in several of the American Pharoahs. His opinion seemed to be confirmed when more than one was withdrawn from the sale.
I played along and picked out horses I thought looked good. Turns out, I am a fan of Into Mischief. Two or three of the ones I pointed out to Donny were by that bay son of Harlan’s Holiday.
Finally, after we went through the sales pavilion, we went to the track.
Donny had scored three clubhouse tickets and we used two of them on Whitney Day. When you watch Saratoga on television, you always see them walk down that path with the white, wooden fences on both sides.
That’s right where Donny and I perched. It was a great spot!
From there, Donny picked out No. 4 in the third race. What a name: Ragnar Lothbrok. Good enough for me.
I bet $30 to win and much to my amazement, here came Ragnar Lothbrok to pay $14.40. Donny had placed my action in his NYRA account.
With all due respect to my friend Cadet, who is connected to Mind Your Biscuits, I held a strong opinion in the Whitney on Diversify. I did my best Richard Dreyfuss impression, and told Donny to Let It Ride on Diversify.
“You can’t do that!” he seemed surprised.
“Oh yes I can,” I replied.
Like Ray had done, I had a personal conversation with Irad Ortiz, who came right by aboard Diversify on his way to the track.
“Let’s go, baby,” I said with confidence.
Just as instructed, Irad and Diversify sprung right on top from the gate, taking control of the race and never letting go. Mind Your Biscuits ran on very strongly to be second, then showed his class by making another couple quicks jumps to hold second when he saw another horse coming.
I high-fived Donny a little too hard and we looked for a good place to celebrate. First, we tried that very cool trackside grill spot adjacent to the Nelson Avenue parking lot. Pete gave us a huge great tip early in the week and said “park on Nelson Avenue. You will love it.”
Right again! Holy cow that side of the track is crucial. When it gets hot, it’s so nice to take a break from the heat and go sit in a nice chair in the shade for a bit. I did that a lot on Sunday, and developed a new addiction to Bloody Marys. The addiction took a strong, immediate hold upon my return to Steubenville when I discovered the remaining straight shine could be used to make Moonshine Marys.
I loved the spot, but the music was understated and it was a low key party. By that point, Donny and I were not looking for low key.
We went in seach of more music, and found it at Siro’s. The man said we could come in, but I had to finish my Bloody Mary first. Not a problem.
The band was terrific and the crowd was raucous. Several hilarious scenes ensued, as we witnessed kids spitting their drinks into each other’s mouths.
Two attractive young ladies were doing naughty things with a paper cutout of a man’s good part. One of them dropped it and looked at me with sad eyes. “Don’t worry honey,” I said. “You’ll find another one.”
A wild day finally came to an end and we got up early on Sunday to take Hunter S. Thompson, errrr I mean Donny Beisbol, back to the airport. I went to the track on Sunday by myself and spent a lot of that day in the shade at the trackside bar. I managed to get alive to the final leg of a pick three that would have paid $1,700 had my longshot come in, but all he could manage was fourth. In the end, my bankroll suffered a slight loss that seemed highly acceptable.
That night, I watched a movie called “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” that I highly recommend. If you thought Frances McDormand was great in “Fargo,” just wait until you see her in this movie. True greatness.
And that, my friends, is the true story of Freedom Tour – The Sequel.
Until next time my friends!