Saturday, May 2, 2009

Going to Aqueduct With Dad

Today is Kentucky Derby day. I always watch (and bet on) The Derby. It's my favorite sporting event of the year. Better than the Super Bowl, better than the Final Four. Of course, this has something to do with it lasting only two minutes. I used to watch the two hour build-up, but now I don't bother with that. I read a few stories in The Post, bet my selections, and watch the race. I've hit a few nice longshots over the years, most notably Charismatic and Monarchos. My love of horseracing started with....


Sometimes on a Saturday, my Dad would suggest that he and I "head over to The Big A". Since I was only 7 years old, he wasn't saying this to me, he was saying it to my Mom. I wonder if taking me along made this activity more palatable to her. The first few times he said it, I worried that she would say no, but she never did. After a few times, I knew that when he suggested it, we were going.

We had a routine. It was always just he and I. Brian (who was 5) only went with us once, but he was "too cranky". After that he was not asked to go, and he never protested when Dad and I went. The Big A is "Aqueduct", a race track in Ozone Park, Queens. It's where the thoroughbreds race in New York when they are not at Belmont or Saratoga. A workingman's racetrack.

We never parked in the parking lot, always in the street about a mile away. "Why should we pay to park?", my Dad said. So we walked through Ozone Park, past little houses and Italian grocery stores. When we got inside, Dad bought a program and a Daily Racing Form. The program was small but impressive, it gave you the basic information about each race: the horse names and post positions, the trainers, the owners, the jockeys (including their weights and "colors"). Dad told me that when we picked a horse to bet on, to remember the jockeys colors, especially his cap, so we could see him in the backstretch.

There were 9 races a day, with about 24 minutes between races. We used that time to "study our selections". The program was just for looking, while the Daily Racing Form was for studying. It had tons more info than the program, including the charts of each horses prior races. I learned how to read it pretty well. You had to look at the distances, times, surfaces, class, weights, jockey changes, trainer changes, and many other factors. Both the program and the racing form had a little "map" showing you where the starting and finish line were for the particular distance.

I always liked a 7 furlong (furlong is an eighth of a mile) race at Aqueduct, because the horses started "in the chute", and the chart showed that.

We always went and looked at the horses and jockeys in the walking ring, before they went on the track. There was a ritual to this. The horses would be walked around, while the jockeys would stand talking to the trainers. The jockeys would wear different colors for each race, with different colors for different parts of their attire, the program would tell you...."red cap, yellow sleeves, red sashes, polka dot hoops". I would always check that they had it right.

Dad told me about some of the jockeys. Our favorite was Braulio Baeza. He was from Panama, and although I did not know it then, he was one of the greatest jockeys of all time. I only knew what Dad told me, "Look at Braulio Baeza, he sits on a horse straight and tall and proud. No other jockey sits like him." It was true.

I always looked at Braulio Baeza first, to make sure he was sitting straight and tall. The other jockey I liked was Manuel Ycaza. There were three reasons I liked him. People called him "Manny", which was my Dad's name, his last name started with a "Y", which was unusual, and he rode aggressively. Several times I read in the racing form that he was suspended for "rough riding". I always hoped to see a race where he did that.

According to my Dad, some jockeys were "good on the turf", some were better with sprinters than closers, and some jockeys rode well for certain trainers. Who knew if any of this were true? Who cared?

When the horses were ready to go on the track, the jockeys would walk over to their horses, and a booming voice would call out "Put your riders up, please." At that moment all the trainers would give their jockeys "a leg up" and hoist them up on the horse. Then they would walk once around the walking ring and head to the the sound of the bugle.

We would follow, Dad would "make his wager", and then we would watch the race from our special vantage point. We had a stairway bannister leading to the upper grandstand. It was right on the finish line, and we would stand on the bannister and look over with a perfect view. I stood near the top, with Dad to my left, a little further down the bannister. We would wait for the magical voice of the track announcer, Fred Caposella, to say "It is now post time". I had to look long and hard to find a Fred Caposella race call, and here it is. At the beginning of the clip is a different announcer, and then it picks up with the real deal.

In horse racing, you can't win every time. In fact, it's difficult if not impossible to win in the long run. We took our defeats in stride, and felt pride in our winners. On the way home we talked about the races. No matter how well or poorly our horses did, we always had a great day at Aqueduct. And, the experiences have stayed with me.......

When I visit Dad in Florida now, we always go to the track....there's a shocker.

When I pick horses now, I focus on the jockeys.

When I take Rebecca to Met games, we park on the street in Corona and walk a mile to the stadium. I'm not paying $18 to park, and for some strange reason, it feels like the right thing to do.

When it's the first Saturday in May, I always watch the Kentucky Derby.

Happy Springtime to all!

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