09/02/2016 10:49AM

A Saratoga for the books


It’s all over but for a little more shouting. Technically, there still is 10 percent of the meet left as I write these words, but we know better: The 2016 Saratoga meeting has already slid into history. Want to see grown men cry? Roll by the paddock bar at around 6:30p.m. on Monday.

It was a special summer, made so by the great equine performances we were all fortunate enough to see. Songbird, Arrogate, and the return of Lady Eli top the list. But for me, every year it’s the people who really make Saratoga the summer place to be. Many of them pass through my family’s little house on the east side. One friend dubbed it “Pete’s degenerate salon.”

Of course, there were a whole lot of contest players in the mix. My wife, Susan, figured me out earlier this year when we went down to Monmouth’s Pick Your Prize tournament. After seeing me warmly greet about eight different groups of players I’ve been fortunate to get to know, she joked, “You call this work but really you just go to these contests to hang out with your friends.”

Many of those same friends were here in Saratoga, from Hurricane Anthony, the Aussie who has flirted with NHC qualifying success but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet, to Jonathon Kinchen. Kinchen, last year’s Tour champ, woke up on my couch the morning of the 2015 Arlington Million, flew to Chicago, and won the Hawthorne tournament. This year the couch wasn’t as magical – though he did manage to be in the money on the first of back-to-back contests here at the Spa.

There were civilians here, too. The rookie and Desiree were constant presences, providing invaluable assistance as well as hospitality. You couldn’t ask for better guests. Then there was the tenant whom I’ll call the Ice Cream Man. He didn’t pay rent, and he drank all my whiskey, but his culinary skills and good company more than made up for all that.

I was fortunate to offer room and board to the next generation of contest players as well. Erik Bialek, the Hawthorne contest ambassador, swung through, demonstrating an impressive knowledge of high-level handicapping and complicated spreadsheet formulas, if not simple division.

Grant LaGrange, 20, of Lafayette, La., made a positive impression as well. Just days after having to be evacuated from his house by boat, LaGrange made his Spa debut anyway. It was great to see Saratoga from the eyes of a passionate racing fan who was a first-time visitor. “This place is unbelievable,” he said upon arrival. “If I could pitch a tent in this place and live here you better believe I would.”

Then there were the regular visitors. DVP, the actor slash gentleman farmer slash expert pizzaiolo, was scarce this year, but like Mike Smith, he made a big impact in the brief time he was here. The Boston crew stayed out of trouble – this time. Tim brought the beer and spun the records. But the musical highlight of the summer came courtesy of my childhood friend Matt Blankman, who made his third consecutive Spa appearance. It was cool enough the night after the Alabama to make a campfire in the backyard and his medley of 60s psychedelia (Iron Butterfly) that gradually segued into prog rock (Yes) and back again (Lothar and the Hand People) was one I’ll remember always.

This isn’t to mention all the fun had at the paddock bar. The boys from L.A. (Lower Albany) were in full effect, and we commandeered the secret spot as often as we could. It was great fun meeting and hanging with podcast listeners like Chris, Al, and Steve. Peter and Linda, the best dressed couple in Saratoga, were a fun addition to the lineup. My favorite wagering moment of the summer came courtesy of my old pal and paddock bar regular (and former Huddie contest winner) Brian Nadeau, who put together a meet-long syndicate. On a day I decided I wasn’t playing, I hit anyway, courtesy of a monster Pick 5 Nadeau took down. Why handicap when you can let your friends do it for you?

The best memories of all came courtesy of the home team: Susan and our daughter, Perrin. Susan is simply the best. We just need to get her a racing industry gig so we can spend even more time up here. And little Perrin, still only 3, enjoys the racetrack as much as any hardened horseplayer, actually more so.

I’m already looking forward to next year. The horses, the tunes, the meals, and the people. Grown men and women may be crying Monday evening, but we’ll all be laughing and shouting again soon enough.