I apologize for being very late with updates from the annual Pony Players Party Express to the Spa this past Labor Day weekend. The Pope Sandwich Media Tour and a trip to Hilton Head with old friends/troublemakers affected my writing schedule. The Saratoga wagering action was huge as usual, but the social scene and many sightings of old friends made it a truly memorable time.
Because of the continued demise of Siro’s -which I will explore in detail in a future post- our trip officially began with Bloody Mary’s at the bar of The Horseshoe Friday morning. Our bartender was Michele Patsos, wife of Sienna B-Ball coach Jimmy and an excellent cook who has attempted(by all reports successfully) more recipes from my book than anyone else. The Pony Players were all in attendance, including Bill Valis, Baretta, Boomer, Tom Markey, Marie and myself. New Florida émigré Danny Scalurati was recovering from the previous evening’s open containers of vodka but met us later in the track. While the breakfast that day was solely liquid, Boomer, Marie and I enjoyed the solid variety Sunday morning on their patio. Michele was kind enough to get one of my books for the chef – thus keeping the bar/kitchen relationship positive and friendly. I hope to hear some of their stories next year – I think the chef definitely has good ones – and after years off my radar the Horseshoe Bar is back in the mix.
On to the track – and a sighting of Mike Burke and his wife Martha. We saw them briefly at the Jim Dandy bar on the first floor but the next day they ventured upstairs to our dining room in the second floor of the Clubhouse. They were seated at a table for four: Mike, Martha, and two large buckets of beers. Mike was happy with this setup but unhappy he just lost a close race. But in a “good karma and welcome to Saratoga” moment the stewards changed the results to make Mike a winner. Although, as horseplayers we seem to lose three quarters of all the 50-50 decisions, sometimes we don’t and this was one of those rare times for Mr. Burke.
He hadn’t always been lucky in his previous New York racing experiences. I saw him a year earlier in DC and he expressed disappointment with a visit to Finger Lakes Racetrack. I’m from Rochester, NY and familiar with FL, so while not surprised with Mike’s assessment I couldn’t figure how he ended up there. Evidently his travel plans had kept him away from Saratoga so he wrongly figured that a detour to the more geographically desirable Rochester track with the scenic name would be okay. At that point it was too late to correct his faulty decision so I just listened to his tale of woe. Burke loves to drink at the track and the new faux-Vegas racino style Finger Lakes clubhouse would lead you in that direction anyway. Unfortunately his first bartender was a dour female needing dental work and her bar was located in the noisier section near the casino. Horseplayers crave action but need an atmosphere to analyze the races – even Burke. So he moved upstairs to a quieter bar only to discover that after two beers the track policy was to have the guest pay the check and then the bartender would start another if you were deemed sober enough to continue. This system may have worked for most horseplayers – many are like myself and rarely drink while wagering. However, for Burke this meant having to pay five checks in an hour, assuming the bartender could keep pace with Mike. It didn’t matter – after a little more than an hour of this drink and dance act Mike was asked to leave the track. That’s a good business plan: throw out your best customer – I’ve seen the clientele at this dump of a track and Burke towers over the lot in style, wit, charisma, teeth and hair – enough said. So it ends well a year later with Burke finally where he should have been all along and being on the good end of a steward’s decision.
Soon after we saw Burke at Saratoga my old friend Dave DeCerbo showed up unannounced at out table. Dave and his late father had introduced me to their beloved Saratoga some 45 years earlier and he is an expert at finding friends at the track. We hadn’t seen him for several years but he heard about my book and had already purchased a few copies. We were able to catch up on things and joined him and his terrific wife Linda for wine, dinner and fun conversation later. He had created a host of new racing fans in his office by hitting a Derby superfecta for the group two years earlier, which only confirms my thought that he should be commissioner of horse racing. He also still has the bridle worn by Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes and plans to give it to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2023 – the 50 year anniversary of that Triple Crown victory.
But he really floored me with a story I hadn’t heard. For various reasons hockey players seem to follow horse racing. Former NHL great Ed Olczyk currently does TV broadcasts for both sports. When the coach of the current Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quinvelle, was a player years ago he regularly sat in reserved seats next to Dave’s dad in the Saratoga stands .Mr. DeCerbo was not a big bettor but always had informed opinions and I’m sure Joel loved interacting with knowledgeable fans such as him. One day there was a big Pick-6 carryover and Joel put together a pretty big ticket. Apparently Mr. DeCerbo had a strong opinion in the last race, which Joel respected. As it turned out the NHL’er was alive to the last race on his ticket but only had one horse chosen – the one favored by Dave’s dad. If you know him then you know that his nickname – Mr. Longshot – was no fake. Dave’s dad did not favor favorites; he knew, and helped me understand over time, that the public’s choice in a race was rarely worth the investment. The vagaries of Saratoga made it imperative to search out the less likely horses and find one who could win despite the long odds. So I’m sure the horse recommended to Mr. Quinvelle was not a favorite and thus more likely to produce a big payoff in the wager. Needless to say the chosen horse won gate to wire and the hockey great probably enjoyed as big a day you could have – short of a Stanley Cup.
Back to work on Part II with appearances by Tony Walsh, Bernie Poirier, Davis Mead and others.