SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Horse trailers rolled through the picturesque backstretch, bound for points south. Ignoring steady rain, fans tried to squeeze another day of fun out of the summer place to be. But summer's almost gone.
Today is the final day of another eventful, lucrative (except for most bettors) Saratoga meet, and yesterday was a time to say goodbye. After 43 years, Tom Durkin called his last race, the Grade I Spinaway, run in the slop in a downpour. After he called 13¼-length winner Condo Commander "splash-tastic," fans chanted "Tommy Durkin! Tommy Durkin!"
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The rain stopped for a special salute in the winner's circle, where Durkin received the Jockey Club Medal of Honor and a "very large" check from Michael Dubb of the New York Racing Association's board of directors. Durkin got choked up as he thanked horseplayers and shouted "Long live horse racing, and long live Saratoga!"
Earlier, Congressman Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Joanne Yepsen, Saratoga Springs' mayor, honored Durkin in an unintentionally surreal ceremony. From beneath umbrellas in the winner's circle, the politicians looked up to his second-floor announcer's booth as if addressing someone who had gone to heaven.
Tonko unveiled a House of Representatives resolution commending Durkin for contributions to racing, and Yepsen proclaimed it Tom Durkin Day. Durkin replied, "Thank you, madam mayor. You've got my vote."
Durkin, 63, is exiting but he'll still be around. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for many contemporaries. On July 20, the ashes of former Newsday writer Paul Moran were scattered in Saratoga's infield, and last month we lost Vic Zast and Ron Rippey. Zast, 69, was a writer and track executive. Rippey, 70, won the 2006 national handicapping championship, worth $250,000. In 1976, Ron was my first editor, and he patiently schooled a pretty clueless rookie. The baby boomers' ranks are thinning, and lately it's been hitting close to home.
Yet the game endures while the cast comes and goes. Like every Saratoga, this meet was world-class, including thrillers in Saturday's Bernard Baruch Handicap and Woodward Stakes. Two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan overcame colic surgery and a long layoff to take the Baruch by a nose. In the Woodward, Itsmyluckyday and Moreno battled and bumped down the stretch, with Itsmyluckyday scoring by a half-length.
Watching your horse finish first produces a magical rush that transforms people. Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. loved Itsmyluckyday's Grade I breakthrough. "When you have a child who does something out of the ordinary that you knew he could do, that's what it felt like," Plesa said. "I mean, horses aren't your children . . . but this is what racing's all about. You could play this stretch drive for anybody, whether they're a racetrack fan or not, and they're going to recognize something special just happened." As always, at the Spa.