On Track with Johnny D: They’re Off and…Driving

Travers is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s right up there alongside Thanksgiving, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and whenever the wife and I go on holiday. That’s because for roughly the last 15 years during Travers Week my pal Will and I have visited Saratoga for racing and to hit, chase and replace vanishing golf balls.

Will traditionally pilots our five-hour commute, which is weird because I always drive the golf cart. Perhaps he’s a stayer and I’m a sprinter? A more likely explanation for our respective roles is that Will’s originated as a reflection of the quality/suitability of his vehicle. In other words, his always was a strong favorite over mine to make it to Saratoga without mechanical incident.

Also, since I returned East after 30 years living in SoCal, my domicile has been located ‘on the way’ to the Spa from Will’s. You’d think at some point in the last 15 years he would have caught on and moved closer to Saratoga. Then I’d have to pick up him ‘on the way.’ But he never did.

We share amazing conversation during our commute, discussing topics that cover more ground than a Dustin Johnson tee shot—from horseracing and golf (obviously), to the approaching Eagles football season, to critical business and personal issues. At the Races with Steve Byk on SiriusXM (available only in Will’s ride) provides three hours (each way) of suitable background entertainment. My weekly Monday morning 10 am guest appearance on the show—post-Travers segment—traditionally, is produced from Will’s passenger seat.

At first, for Spa driving directions we consulted a two-page (each way) MapQuest computer printout. Now, when Will arrives at my house his car intuitively displays the most direct Spa route. How does it know where we’re going? None of my cars has ever been able to read my mind. In fact, I’m impressed when one starts at first asking. So, Will drives.

Will’s golf game has improved dramatically this season. Unfortunately, our handicaps recently passed each other like ships in the night. His headed north, mine going south. Or, I suppose, for golf it’s the other way around. Anyway, his is getting better, mine is getting worse. He’s now playing at the level I used to. My excuse is that I’m older than him. I know, that’s a weak alibi. However, if age doesn’t sound to you like it could be a valid excuse …just wait. It will.

A legitimate alibi for my declining golf prowess is that in the past few seasons I’ve been injured. Two years ago, while firing a crisp 175-yard beauty over water that landed just four feet from the cup, I broke a small bone in my hand. I made the birdie putt. But, following an operation, I missed six weeks on the course. About the same time, baseball slugger Giancarlo Stanton broke the same bone in his hand and missed the rest of the season. What my bone was doing in his hand I don’t know. (Thanks, Groucho!) Last year my arthritic hip demanded undivided attention. This season back spasms have hindered my game!

From the ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ department, I wouldn’t share a hotel room for four nights with anyone. Conversely, no one would consider doing the same with me. One night would be enough for us both. However, Will and I have managed to do it annually—television preferences, snoring, ear plugs, sound machines, pillow compositions and bathroom complications included. Since, as a ‘roomie’ he’s also no ‘box of chocolates,’ it balances out.

In the early days, Will’s son Drew used to join us on the sojourn–silently stretched out in the rear of Will’s SUV, eyes and fingers glued to the newest Madden NFL release. His air mattress on the floor of the hotel room looked comfortable enough but that didn’t matter. When you’re a kid you can sleep on a pile of rocks. During his teenage years, a job and seashore summers with friends outran a track trip with a pair of fogies. Understood. Drew’s now a college graduate working in the DC area. He’s found renewed interest in playing the horses and I’ll wager that someday he’ll either rejoin us or organize his own annual Spa visit.

My wife jokes that Will and I like to hang out in the hotel room in our ‘panties.’ Cracked me up first time I heard it. Now, each year, as trip departure day approaches, she’ll tease and refer to my upcoming ‘panty party.’ Doesn’t bother me. She’s slightly jealous. Wishes she could join us–for Saratoga fun, not the ‘panty party.’ Deep down she truly wants me to go. She understands how a dose of Spa horses and golf rejuvenate this soul.

This renewal of the $1.25 million Travers is the most wide-open I can recall. Obviously, I haven’t been around for all 147 previous Mid-Summer Derbies, but I can’t imagine one being any more inscrutable than this year’s edition. A reasonable case for victory can be constructed for about half the field of 12. Seriously. This sophomore season has been a perplexing puzzle with three different winners of Triple Crown races—Always Dreaming in the Derby, Cloud Computing in the Preakness and Tapwrit in the Belmont. For the first time since 1982 different winners of all three TC races will compete in the Travers. Before that it last happened in 1918!

Del Mar-based Bob Baffert is shipping West Coast east and the Hall-of-Fame trainer’s recent left-to-right-coast invaders have been deadly. Impressive turf-to-dirt Jim Dandy victor Good Samaritan; rejuvenated Haskell star Girvin; sneaky-good Ohio and Indiana Derbies champ Irap; Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee and Matt Winn hero McCraken are enough to confound horseplayers more than usual.

A Travers supporting card always is outstanding and this year is no exception. Six graded stakes—five Grade 1s, including the $1 million Sword Dancer; $700k Personal Ensign; $600k Forego; $500k H. Allen Jerkins Memorial (formerly known as the King’s Bishop) and $500k Ketel One Ballerina—pack the card along with the Grade 2 $400k Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa.

Mix in equal parts sunshine, cool breezes, tall, fragrant trees, expansive paddock, charming grandstand, the backyard and a couple of juicy exacta payoffs and you have a heavenly dish. Serve it with a side of golf over a lovely and challenging course alongside a loyal friend and…that’s it, pal! Doesn’t get any better.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: They’re Off and…Driving

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