Saratoga marches on at its own pace

Traditions -- good and bad -- die hard at Saratoga. Dave takes a trip down memory lane by way of the Saratoga press box.

Updated: August 6, 2001, 4:18 PM ET
By Dave Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

The Press Box at Saratoga is a real trip. The historical ambiance alone is enough to give you the willies when you walk in, especially if you haven't been there in a while. The ghosts of Red Smith, Pat Lynch and Willie Dempsey are all there for sure. Smith, the fabled sports writer for The New York Times, and Lynch, a long time handicapper for the Hearst newspapers, were unique souls, but not as colorful as Dempsey. Before they installed a mutuel machine in the Press Box, Willie was there to run the bets for the reporters. He ran them right into his pocket -- he was a bookmaker. Sure, he put a few of them through the mutuel windows, but I once asked my friend Frank Dwyer to follow Willie when he left the box. Frank told me he went directly to the men's room.

Saratoga
Saratoga is currently running its 133rd meeting.
But Willie was always good for a loan. And no interest! "Movie money" was a $20 bill. "Dinner money" was $50. One night after a bad day of betting, I asked Willie for "dinner money," and he said, "You must be one hell of a tipper!"

Nowadays, there is a self-service betting machine, at least one live teller at a window near the kitchen and plenty of telephones to get to a NYRA or OTB account. Change does come, however grudgingly, at The Spa.

The Press Box is built into the wooden rafters of the old grandstand. Most of the walls and the roof have a tilt or a slant, making it tough to stand straight up without hitting your head. Everything is wood, all painted white.

Near the middle of the working area is a door marked "The 115 room for men." Inside there is a marker noting that it was not until the 115th season of racing was there a rest room in the press box.

With the political correctness of the 90's came another room with a number, this one marked "The 135 room for women." You guessed it. Women are actually writing stories and covering the races at Saratoga -- in the press box!

And they bet too. While at the races opening weekend of the meet I stood behind a lady making a bet. After paying mutuel clerk Irwin Wenger for the wager, the lady forgot to take her ticket from the machine. Irwin called after her and said, "Hey lady, take your ticket. Otherwise, you won't have anything to tear up after the race!"

Reporters, especially ones who cover the nags, may lose their dinner money, but they never loose their sense of humor. That goes for everybody I've met that works in the game.

In the town of Saratoga Springs, there are also a few changes.

When I first started working for NYRA 30 years ago, there was a nightly trek to the Spa City Diner on the south end of town. As many as a hundred cars would park in the lot, while hundreds of people milled around on the sidewalk, drank coffee and hung out inside the diner, waiting for the bus. The bus from the city. The bus that arrived about 9 p.m. The all-important bus that brought The Morning Telegraph (that's what they called the big newspaper-sized Daily Racing Form back then) to upstate New York. The line was orderly. Everyone just wanted to get the past performances and get to work handicapping. Now, with entries and scratch time moved back, the fan can get an earlier jump on the business of picking a winner.

And it's tough to cash at America's oldest racetrack. One wag in the Press Box said to me that he was going to bet $2 to show on Hap in the Bernard Baruch, just so he could say at Siro's that he had cashed a bet at Saratoga! Of course Hap won, but the guy ended up not making the bet. He didn't cash all day!

Siro's is a watering hole about two furlongs from the finish line, and I was shocked to see how it had been expanded and how many people were there after the races each night.

The restaurant/bar is only open six weeks a year. Mead Davis , the owner, told me that he tried keeping it open year round, but it lost money that way. With a grin as big as the canoe in Saratoga's infield lake, he told me that he just had to settle for working only during the season, then playing golf, traveling and drinking the other 10 months of the year.

I asked Mead what was his secret to success. I expected to hear "location, location, location." Instead, he said, "I charge an exorbitant amount of money for a very small portion of food, and I have to turn the business away. And they drink a lot in the back yard and under the tents after the races."

A lot is right. And a lot is right with Saratoga these days. You should see for yourself.