Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., holds a special spot in the heart of many a racing fan. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
There are anniversaries that should always resonate with anyone.
A wedding comes to mind first.
For me, this coming weekend will spark a particularly nostalgic memory. It was some 40 years ago that I made my first trip to Saratoga Race Course and watched the 1974 Spinaway and Hopeful stakes.
The actual dates of those races were Aug. 23 and 24 and the winners were Ruffian in the Spinaway and Foolish Pleasure and The Bagel Prince in the split divisions of the Hopeful. But that was back in “the old days” when Saratoga was open only in August for 24 days spread across four weekends.
1974 SPINAWAY STAKES
Now in this era of a 40-day, seven-weekend meet, it’s not the actual dates that serve as a starting point for four decades of wonderful memories. Rather, it is the two grand stakes for 2-year-olds that matter more and stand out as the places where it all began.
Seeing two future Hall of Famers on back-to-back days gave me a taste of what was to come during so many other trips to racing’s oasis in the Adirondack Mountains. Some as vacations; some as work. All unforgettable.
There are so many great races that stand out upon reflection, yet the smiles generated by the mere mention of Saratoga involve much more than the great athletes who graced the revered racetrack.
There were days relaxing in the backyard under the shade of the tall trees. Feeling the electricity of a large, energetic crowd. Forgetting for a while how fast-paced and hectic life can be while savoring an atmosphere befitting a Victorian era. Watching workouts in the cool, crisp morning air.
Sharing it all with family and friends.
The people you meet.
In many ways what helped make Saratoga such a beloved spot for me was the way that racing was embraced by the local community and how it introduced me to people like Jim Morrissey.
Morrissey, now in his early 80s, is probably best known to several generations of Saratoga visitors for turning the lawn of his family’s home into a parking lot each racing season for at least 70 years and serving as one of the best goodwill ambassadors Saratoga Springs, N.Y., could ever have.
The Morrissey family has owned their home at 81 Nelson Ave., overlooking Saratoga’s clubhouse turn, for about 160 years. They were there before the track was built and called it home long before Henry Ford invented the Model T.
As times changed and the crowds grew larger, at some point in the 1940s Jim’s parents began offering parking spots in their specious backyard to track patrons seeking quick access to the main entrance.
I first stumbled upon Morrissey’s parking lot during a 1978 visit to Saratoga when my high school buddy, handicapping compadre and now America’s Best Racing colleague Tom Pedulla and I spent Whitney weekend at Saratoga just a few months removed from our graduation from college.
The concept of having someone park their car on your lawn was something new to me, even though I had grown up within the shadow of Belmont Park. Our block would gain a few extra cars on big race days in the 1960s, but in Queens Village what passed for a yard could fit maybe four cars in it – if we wanted to tear down our fence.
But heeding the advice of flagman steering us toward the lot, I pulled into Morrissey’s yard and joined about a hundred or so other vehicles taking up space on the family’s home grounds.
It was there I saw Morrissey for the first time and handed him several dollars as the fee for the right to use his backyard for the afternoon. He was a strong, hulking man in his mid 40s with a baseball cap on his head and a whistle around his neck that he used to coordinate the parking of cars in a manner that made efficient use of every available inch of property.
The next day Tom and I returned to their lot after a night in town that was only somewhat satisfying. Like any 21-year-olds, we enjoyed downtown bars but were far from thrilled for the overpriced chow that was supposed to be the self-proclaimed “Best Italian Food in Saratoga.”
In an era long before someone invented the Internet for dining suggestions and having only a modest budget for meals, I decided to ask Morrissey if he could suggest a good and reasonable place to dine.
What happened next could befit the words of Humphrey Bogart. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or something like that. “Big Jim,” as we’d call him, was a more of a father figure and tour guide to us than a drinking buddy.
Over the years, he told us about places most popular with the Saratoga Springs residents, not the tourists. He steered us to Panza’s near the Lake, Cliff’s for a great steak, Pennell’s for Italian food. When he heard we were staying at a $15-a-night cabin west of town in Broadalbin, he told us about a place near there with the biggest prime rib in the area. He wasn’t kidding.
They were food tips far better than the tips we received outside the main gate from characters like Clocker Wilson and Dan Carter.
Jim told us about the best night spots, things to see and places to avoid and listened to the sagas of our bad beats at the betting window – and did it all with a warm smile and hearty laugh.
The best memory comes from a year in the early 1980s.
On this particular year, Tom was doing the driving during our annual voyage to the Spa. In earlier years, I had put my foot down and said I would drive, not wanting to be crammed in his Pinto for more than three hours.
NOT PEDULLA'S PINTO
He had just bought a new Toyota Corolla and I was more than happy to sit back and handicap the day’s card while he proudly handled the driving. Everything went along fine until we pulled into town and were stopped at a traffic light on Broadway. I looked up and saw the light had turned to green and noticed we weren’t moving and the radio was no longer playing.
Playing the role of Captain Obvious, I said. “It’s green.”
“I know,” he said frantically. “Nothing’s happening.”
It was as if the car was turned off. As he kept turning the ignition key, not a single light went on nor did the engine make a sound.
Tom’s new car, just a few weeks old, was stone-cold dead.
Fortunately, we were not far from a dealership, so Tom was able to get the car towed there quickly enough. But the staff wasn’t exactly helpful. They didn’t know what was wrong with the car or how long it would take to fix it. It was dropped in our laps to figure out how we going to get around town the town for the rest of our stay. Though neither of us were math majors, we knew the cost of a rent-a-car would dig deep into our wallets – especially if we had our typical lack of success at the betting windows.
Unsure of what to do next, we made the best decision of the weekend. We walked to Jim’s house.
The day was already three or four races old when he saw us approaching empty-handed on foot, instead of with our ubiquitous cooler in tow. Jim wondered what was amiss. He shook his head when he heard our tale of woe.
“A brand-new car?” he said.
“A brand-new car,” Tom nodded back in dismay.
“Ok, here’s what we’re going to do,” Jim said.
He then told us about a Rent-a-Wreck car for a dirt-cheap price that would keep the trip afloat.
“C’mon, I’ll drive you over there,” Jim said.
Jim gave some instructions to another family member on how to handle things and he then drove us to the Rent-a-Wreck office.
He dropped us off and told us, “I’ll save a parking spot for you.”
About an hour later, after picking up our luggage at the dealership, we returned to Jim’s yard. Seeing how rattled Tom was by the demise of his car, I had taken over the driving – leading to a memorable encounter with local authorities later that night that is best left unmentioned – and pulled into a spot Jim had set aside for us. It was indeed a wreck of a car. The roof was peeling, the floor was filthy and we found out at night that one of the headlights shot up in the air. But at least it was moving.
After I parked, I handed Jim a $10 bill and we profusely thanked him for all of his help. He waved it off.
“After all you guys have been through today, hold on to that,” Jim said.
In the end, despite the misfortune with the car, it turned out to be one of our more enjoyable trips to the Spa and we had Jim, our upstate dad, to thank for turning it around for us.
Today, the Morrissey’s rent out their house, but still run the parking lot for 40 days. Jim now lives in nearby Wilton. Over the years, management of the parking area was turned over from Jim to his brother, to his brother’s son, Mike. Now each day, Mike’s daughters, Laura and Maggie, run the show, making them the fourth generation of Morrisseys to oversee the operation.
“We love doing this,” Laura said last week while waiting for cars to pull in. “It’s been a part of our family for so long.”
People like Jim Morrissey are also part of why Saratoga has such a special place in the hearts of racing fans for so long.
For me, it’s been 40 years and I’m thankful to the great champions on the racetrack, the friends and family and, of course, people like “Big Jim,” for every great minute of it.
It’s been time very well spent.