Part of the appeal of Saratoga for the horseplayer is the proximity to the sport’s great trainers and jockeys. Not only do you see trainers in the clubhouse boxes but the jockeys parade before each race from their quarters through the outside public area on the way to the saddling enclosure. However, that’s just part of the story – the entire dynamic continues nightly in the town’s many dining rooms, such as Sperry’s, Siro’s and the venerable Wishing Well just north of downtown. It’s more likely than not that you will be seated next to a trainer, jockey or owner. I was reminded of one of our favorite nights after watching the track honor some of the great older jockeys between races today.
We were having dinner in the bar at Pennell’s Restaurant with DC friend and bartender T-Bird. It was a lively Saturday evening after a big race day featuring several stakes races. This was in the 1990’s and there were about two working taxis in town, as opposed to the many available today. The manager had called a cab for us but we had been waiting 45 minutes without any appearance. We went back in to the bar to try calling again when the manager mentioned that a gentleman from a group just leaving would be happy to drop us at our hotel.
This group had been celebrating the great fortune of one family member – the jockey Jorge Chavez. He was a solid jockey at the time but was especially pleased to record his first victory in a Grade One Stakes at Saratoga that day. This win validated his up and coming stature in the jockey community and he stayed a top rider in New York for years, earning the nickname “Chop Chop” for his perceived aggressive style. In actuality, his arms were pretty short for even a jockey and it looked like he moved them more excitedly than he actually did. His brother, who mirrored Jorge’s frame, was the wheelman and the four of us greeted each other. On the way to their car we congratulated Jorge on the day’s success and they could not have been more friendly. Of course they are driving a giant Cadillac and as we got into the back seat, they both basically disappeared from sight in the front. On the dark unlit streets. I feared someone who was over served that night would notice our large sedan cruising with two people in the back and no visible occupant driving the vehicle. It was a great Saratoga experience and should remind all that jockeys are regular people who may be small in size but have big hearts.
The next story involves a trainer, a jockey’s ex-wife and a very overrated restaurant. The restaurant was Sergio’s – an Italian hot spot favored for a few years by many gamblers and racetrackers. It may have been located near The Wishing Well restaurant, but was far removed from that Saratoga favorite in professionalism. Five of us waited patiently one evening – and only one evening – for our reserved table to be ready amid a fairly chaotic throng on the patio. Finally we were seated and although we ordered some wine to help calm down, no glasses were available to go with the carafes of house red and white. It took at least 15 minutes for the glasses to appear and then after ordering food we discovered the plates and silverware must have been hiding with the clean glassware.
All the service mishaps continued and we couldn’t order wine quick enough to ease the pain. But it gets worse – a woman who seemed to be some sort of useless representative of the business kept squeezing through too tight spaces between the tables. She concentrated on a table next to ours, which caused her overabundant posterior to spill over our table. We later learned she was Angel Cordero’s ex-wife, which made him better off than us at that point. The man at her table of interest turned out to be trainer Peter Walder, who was beginning his rise to the top of his profession then. Luckily he turned out to be a very nice man, since the former Mrs. Cordero had decided to clear his table by dropping his used plates onto our table. Soon she became distracted and moved to the next victim of her attention. Mr. Walder apologized for her conduct before personally removing his dirty dishes now in our possession. Our companions at the table had evidently been drinking enough earlier to cloud their vision so they basically missed all this action – Danny was only worried about getting the last piece of cheesecake in the house and after that worked in his favor, he decided it had been a perfectly lovely dining experience. But once again a racetrack professional was shown to be a truly classy individual.
The last story took place at the patio bar of Hatties’ after dinner hours. Our DC friend Bernie was working the bar at that time and had a good crowd drinking and having fun. As it grew later and the crowd thinned, I noticed two guys at the bar that had obviously been there much longer than us and were engaged in deep conversation with Bernie. Unfortunately the language they spoke was a mystery to myself and anybody that hadn’t been boozing for hours. They would not have been drunker if Trader Vic had been working with Bernie on “Free Drink Night.” They slowly stumbled their way out of Bernie’s bar and I had to ask him who they were. The racetrack employs three stewards to handle various problems which arise during race days – these guys were two of the three. I guess one of them has to stay sober each night and these customers were the two stewed stewards. God knows what they were discussing with Bernie, but I doubt anyone remembered any details the next day. I hope their vision was clear enough the following afternoon to analyze the fine details of any roughly run races.
Great racing so far this year in Saratoga – good luck.
Chef Soper – Chefsoper@starpower.net