I’ve covered only a few horse races, and was just a kid with a portable Royal typewriter and a fresh stack of carbon paper when I was assigned to write the Preakness and Belmont in 1978, the last two legs of Alydar vs. Affirmed.
Thirty-four years later, with Affirmed’s Triple Crown not equaled since, not much has really changed about a horse race. The industry in many ways remains frozen in time, for reasons good and bad, with tiny jockeys trying to boot huge horses around the track as fast as their disproportionate partnership will allow.
As for the typewriter and the carbon paper, the words “glue factory’’ of course come to mind. But things change, as anyone connected to America’s shrinking horse track industry sorely knows.
So there I was Thursday morning, bright and early and pitifully caffeine-deficient, walking around the barn area at Suffolk Downs. The East Boston/Revere oval, doing business at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean since 1935, throws open its doors again next Saturday with a 12:45 p.m. post time, the start of a five-month meet of dirt, turf, and all the $2 tickets fit to print.
Odd, two bucks is still the basic wager at the window. In 1978, a couple of dollars bought 12 cans of Coke, 16 ears of corn, a half-dozen loaves of bread (Belmont, white), or 2 pounds of Fenway bologna at Stop & Shop. Truth be told, it was $2.18 for the cold cuts, because Fenway bologna has always carried a premium.
Today, $2 buys a copy of the daily Globe, less than half a pack of cigarettes, maybe a cup of coffee, or a half-gallon of milk. Seems to me, all these years later, that it ought to cost more than a deuce to hitch a ride with a top jock and a hot horse.
Suffolk is the last thoroughbred track operating in New England, which speaks to both its resilient spirit and the way things have deteriorated for the industry. Suffolk’s old art-deco bones are creaking, its attendance far south of its post-World War II heyday, and its future tethered perilously to the roulette wheel of the state’s nascent casino industry.
But it still stands, it still employs, and it carries on with an aged grace and timelessness, along the rail, in the grandstands, and in the barn area.
It is an endearing oasis in a time when our pro sports arenas assault us with music and videos, flirt with us with buxom cheerleaders, and annoy us with wacky intermission contests.
Loud noises don’t cut it at the racetrack. They spook horses and upset trainers. At Suffolk, even the jets that are incessantly in and out of Logan seem to be respectful with their flyovers.
The reason to go to a horse race remains exactly what it has been for decades: to see horses run as fast as they can, usually with some of our money saddled up for the ride.
Not all that different from the other sports, really, except admission is free and we get to choose our level of financial investment, perhaps even go home with more money than we arrived with. That isn’t happening at any other sports venue in town.
Of all that I saw Thursday, the only thing that struck me as new age was the merry-go-round-like equineciser in the barn area. It’s essentially a slowly rotating playpen for horses, able to accommodate four of them at a time and keep them separated the same way a revolving door keeps customers entering and exiting simultaneously.
“It’s fun to watch them in there, isn’t it?’’ said Sam Elliott, the track’s vice president of racing, noting how the thoroughbreds sometimes kick up their hind legs and frolic while keeping pace in the equineciser.
“We’ve had that about four years now. I think they like it because they’re free.
“It’s obvious that they’re happy when they’re in there.’’
Suffolk’s barns opened April 22, and by Thursday some 700 horses were in residence, keeping that merry-go-round in perpetual motion. There will be 1,000 or more horses when the meet hits its peak during the summer.
Like all barn areas in the morning, be it a race day or not, it was abuzz with horses, hot walkers, jockeys and their agents, farriers, trainers, owners, veterinarians, maintenance personnel, and more.
It’s a pity that more visitors aren’t allowed back there, because it is a wonderful slice of Americana, a ragged though romantic field full of hard work, opportunities, dreams in various stages of ascent and decline.
“The day I graduated high school in 1984, I came here and haven’t left here since,’’ said trainer Jay Bernardini, who grew up in Salem, N.H., and these days has some 30 horses under his charge. “It’s my home, absolutely it is, and let’s hope it stays that way.’’
Uncertainty. It is the prevailing theme, with a new season about to start, with fewer tracks operating nationwide, and with no one able to handicap the horse race at the State House as pols plot where to build three casinos. Suffolk ownership wants one of those to land on its 160 acres by the sea.
Meanwhile, 77 years after the first race, it is almost post time again at Suffolk Downs. As he made his rounds on Thursday, Richard Sheehan, a longtime veterinarian, noted the “palpable buzz among the horsemen . . . really, there’s more optimism around here than I’ve felt in years.’’
Sheehan said he measures that uptick by the increase in Massachusetts-born foals over the last year as well a surge in 2-year-olds that have taken up residence at Suffolk for this season.
“Owners want their 2-year-olds here now so they’re here as 3-year-olds next year,’’ he said. “That all comes from optimism, looking to the future.’’
As he spoke, the good doctor, whose father by the same name was a vet at Suffolk for decades, held a large, shiny medical instrument in his hands.
“Ah, hoof tester,’’ said Sheehan, noting my curious, somewhat queasy glance at the big tool he cradled in his hands. “Not to worry, it looks worse that it is.’’
Truly words to live by these days at Suffolk. Under the sun and bright blue sky, it was easy to feel that way Thursday morning. There, amid the time capsule of the barns, it could have been 1952, with a crowd of 18,000-plus ready to fill the grandstands, cigars to be chomped, winnings to be reaped.
True, not everything old is new again, but that’s not to say everything old is forgotten. Suffolk Downs is still here, it has a fit, and though that couple of bucks may not send you home a winner, it’s guaranteed to carry you back to a simpler, quieter place.