In the morning after I drop my son off at school, I make the turn back toward home that takes me behind the high school. On that long strip of road with the football field on one side and Belmont Racetrack on the other, I see the thoroughbreds marking a slow gallop on the practice track. This is how I know the season is changing.
When we were kids, we spent our weekends at Santa Anita with my grandfather. No one knew the horses the way he did. And while nearly all of his knowledge came from studying the stats and years of simply being around and owning horses, I love that he held on to a few superstitions: always bet the grey horse, and stay away from races on the turf.
When I was in junior high, the same age my son is now, I spent almost every Saturday at the track with my grandfather. Sometimes the whole family would be together, sometimes it was just the two of us. We lived at the Turf Club. We’d arrive early, at least an hour before the first race. My grandfather would stop to pick up his binoculars, chat with the staff and the maitre d’, and then we’d settle in at our table and order lunch.
I was 13 years old, but I used to make my own bets. We all did. It was a different time. They knew us at the track, and the Turf Club was its own little world. I’d head up to the window with my two dollars and bet to win. My grandfather made sure we knew how to call our bets. “Two dollars on number two to win.” And he made sure we understood the odds and how to read The Racing Form.
When I make the turn past Belmont, I see the mountains in my mind. I remember the flowers in January, everything in bloom. The horses run in the winter at Santa Anita — and California is not New York or even Long Island. Winter is green, not grey. It’s beautiful there.
I haven’t been to the races in years. When my son was small, we took him to Belmont Park for Breakfast at Belmont. We watched the horses exercise and toured the grounds. But it was a bit of a letdown for me. Every time I think about Belmont, I dream of Santa Anita — and I know I will never go back. Without my grandfather, there would be no magic.
My son tells me he watches the horses from the window of one of his classrooms whenever he’s bored, but I know there’s no magic for him either. I think he’s more likely checking out the cars that drive by.
About the time I started high school, I stopped spending Saturdays at the track. My grandfather held on to his Turf Club membership for years, but after a while, it just wasn’t the same. I was going to football games on Friday nights and sleeping late on Saturday mornings. I didn’t have time for the races — or my grandfather. Still, sometimes, he would ask me to stop at the liquor store and pick up The Racing Form so he could mark it up and pick the exactas. Now The Racing Form — like everything else — is online.
Maybe there are always two stories to tell. Or, two truths to every story. I drop my son off at school and make the turn to come home. I pass by Belmont and I remember exactly how I felt at 13, how much I loved being at the track and spending time with my grandfather. But those early teenage years are fleeting. My son will be on his own soon.
And this is what I think about as I make the final turn for home.