A Day at the Races, Hand Melons and a Night in Ottaw 9-9-06

A Day at the Races, Hand Melons, and a Night in Ottawa


Richard J. Garfunkel

September 9, 2006


Saratoga Springs is a beautiful little city not far up the line from Albany, Schenectady and Troy. One could easily find a lot to do there as long as the weather is mild. Besides its famous track that has been in business for over 140 years there are some interesting museums, the Lincoln Baths, beautiful Congress Park and the old gambling Casino, the Gideon Putnam Hotel, the old and new campuses of Skidmore College and a great downtown. Saratoga, now a city of more than 27,000 souls was first settled around 1776, was established as a geographical entity in 1819, a village in 1826 and finally a city in 1916.


By the way, the pivotal Battle of Saratoga, which proved to be a critical, if not the most critical turning point of the American Revolution, was fought fifteen miles to the Southeast from September 19 to October 7, 1777. It was at this pivotal engagement that British forces, supported by Tories, Canadians, German Brunswickers (also called Hessians) and Indians were defeated in a series of local battles, Oriskany, Bennington, Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. Historically the British plan of having the forces of Colonel Barry St. Leger, General John Burgoyne, and General William Howe meet up in central New York and divide the Colonies failed. Howe went south to Philadelphia, St. Leger and his Indian allies were beaten at Oriskany and forced to retreat by General Nicholas Herkimer, who gave his life, and General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was beaten by a combination of forces at Bemis Heights led by General Horatio Gates, and assisted heroically by Generals Benjamin Lincoln, Benedict Arnold, Enoch Poor, Ebenezer Learned, and the heroic Virginian Colonel Dan Morgan. Out of the original British combined forces of 7800, over 1600 were killed or wounded and 6000 were captured. The American colonial forces that numbered over 15,000 were made up of regulars and volunteers from all over the region, including four or five states, and even some Oneida Indians suffered 800 casualties. So one could spend a great deal of time in and around Saratoga studying its military history. 


But, all in all, it’s the nation’s longest continuously operating racetrack. It has been located on Union Avenue since 1863 and has attracted millions over the years to its August meet. As the late great writer Walter “Red” Smith wrote in one of his columns on racing in 1957, Godly Gambling Hell,  “I heard it said,” the priest said, “that Saratoga and the racetrack especially have been enjoying their best season in history. More people have been attending race and more money has been going through the mutuel machines than ever before. I understand that yesterday the daily double windows were kept open longer than usual and when they closed there were still lines waiting and 150 people were turned away. If any of those people are here this morning, we will cheerfully accept those bets, in the collection basket.” Smith went on to say that “…in Saratoga, where racing remains a recreation first and a business enterprise last, it has often seemed here that there is a happy affinity between horse playing and piety.”


With all that in mind, I had a number of experiences up in old Saratoga, what was familiarly called “The Graveyard of Favorites.” My mother’s mother, Leah Alexander, who died in 1946, when I was still a toddler, was born in Troy, NY, which is somewhat equidistant from Albany to Saratoga and is also the home of Russell Sage College, where Linda began college and we visited in the early part of this present century. I had been up in the capital region a number of times when I was a young boy because my grand aunt Rose (my grandmother’s younger sister) and my uncle Carl Myers, who owned a few department stores, lived on fashionable Marion Avenue. Marion Avenue was ritzy then with its Federal-style brick houses, and today it looks even better. My grandfather, John Kivo happened to like the track, and he combined familial obligations with his sporting interests. Over the years he spent most of his time up there at the luxurious old Gideon Putnam Hotel that sits in the middle of Saratoga Spa State Park. This Georgian structure, built in 1935 by Marcus Reynolds has 120 rooms and sits in the middle of 2300 acres that also contains the Hall of Springs, the Roosevelt and Lincoln Baths and a golf course.


When I was first there over 50 years ago, I remember going into the bar with my father and having him point out the famous people. One person I clearly remember was Monty Wolley, who was sitting in his accustomed place at the bar. For all who have forgotten, Wolley (1888-1963), who was known also as the “Beard,” was a friend of Cole Porter (1891-1964) at Yale, taught English for a time at Old Eli and had a later career as an actor. Wolley played himself in the fictitious Hollywood Cole Porter “bio-pic,” Night and Day, with Cary Grant as Porter, and Alexis Smith as his beautiful wife Linda. Though the music was great, when the legendary Porter saw the film, his comments were, “Great film, not my life.” Wolley really became famous, when he starred in both the Broadway (1939) and the Hollywood (1942) Kaufman-Hart productions of The Man Who Came To Dinner, as the eccentric Sheridan Whiteside. George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) and Moss Hart, (1904-1961), the husband of the actress Kitty Carlisle (nee. Conn, pronounced Cohen) based this comedy classic on the career of their friend and Algonquin Round Table luminary Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943). Unfortunately, for the great rotund wit he originally turned down the part, because he was too busy with his other pursuit, died soon after, and was eventually forgotten. Therefore, Wolley always remained “The Man Who Came To Dinner!”


Ironically, my mother always talked of her chance meeting with the myopic, tall and gangly wit, writer, director and critic George S. Kaufman. She was standing outside the Yiddish Theater, on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street in New York City, right across from the old, now long gone, Romanian restaurant, Moskowitz and Lupowitz, in 1926 at the age of eighteen. Kaufman, aged 37, at the time, approached her and said, “hello.” He told her that he had an extra ticket to the show and asked her if she would accompany him to see it. According to my mother’s account, she agreed, they saw the show and parted. Years later in 1968, I was enjoying a trip to Florida with my life-long friend Larry Reich, who was enrolled in an externship in a hospital in North Miami Beach, Florida, on his way to a long medical career. As I absorbed the summer sun on Hibiscus Island, situated in Biscayne Bay, off the MacArthur Causeway, I happened to read a great biography of Kaufman by Howard Teichman. (1916-1987, who also wrote a biography of Alexander Woolcott and co-wrote The Solid Gold Cadillac with GS Kaufman.) In the biography Teichman tells of Mary Astor, (1906-1987), the Hollywood beauty, who was sued for divorce by her then husband Dr. Franklin Thorpe in 1936, when details of her juicy diary were revealed. The judge ruled the diary as being too sexually explicit and had it confiscated. It was rumored that Ms. Astor rated all her lovers with an accompanying chart. It was also said that the myopic and stooping Kaufman was rated number one, with a 5-Star billing. When I returned home I asked my mother about this story and jokingly asked her whether she had had any other contact with Kaufman. She didn’t “take the bait” and brushed off my silliness. I did say to her that after reading about Kaufman, I had “new respect for her!”


On our way up to Canada, during the recent Labor Day long weekend holiday, we stopped once again in Albany, toured the New York State Museum in the Empire Plaza, and went to lunch with my distant cousin Carl, whose parents, Rose (my mother’s young aunt) and Carl Myers, had passed away many years ago. We went to eat in the Bagel-Bite on Delaware Avenue, drove through his elegant old neighborhood on Marion Avenue and eventually said our farewells, and moved on to Saratoga Springs. When we arrived into the City of Saratoga we quickly drove over to the venerable old track on Union Avenue, saw that parking was $10 and then drove across the street to the National Racing Hall of Fame. We wound up parking in someone’s backyard. There was a sign that said “Donation $5, put the money in the window of the white Valiant, thanks.” We looked around, and found the old rusting “junker” parked next to the curb cut with its front window cracked open about 2 inches. On the seat were crumpled dollar bills and, and I assumed that this was the “cash register” as I slipped mine in also. We walked right across to the Racing Hall of Fame. Little did we know that we could have parked there for free! I had learned earlier in the week that my stockbroker Art Pasternak, and his wife and his young son Rick, were to be at the track on that very Saturday. I called him on my cell phone, found out where his box seats were, and made my way across Union Avenue to the track while Linda stayed at the museum. I paid my two beans at the window and found Art at the end of the sixth race. We talked a bit, and realizing that I had promised to be back at the Hall of Fame by five PM, I had only time for one bet. I asked for the racing program, looked at the chart of the seventh race and determined that this field was horrible! Not one horse had ever won a race. Classically one could have termed this race a “maiden” race, but in fact some of these nags had been around so long that the race could have been better termed an “old maid’s race.” The field was so bad that even Art was sitting this one out. So I decided to take the four most extreme long shots and “box” them in an exacta. In the parlance of the track, any “boxed” combinations of the 1, 4, 7, and 8 horses that came in first and second or second and first would constitute a winning exacta. The odds ranged from 99 to1, which means that the odds are usually over 100-1, but the mutual board only shows two digits, and 55 to 1. Therefore, if by chance the lowest combination had come in, the pay-off could have been in the range of $3,000! But the gods of the track are notoriously fickle and at the top of the stretch, when it seem like my vacation would be paid in triplicate, the number 9 horse slipped into the lead and the finishing results wound up being 9-1-4-8. Too bad, but that’s what’s the track is about, momentary elation and long-term reality.


In my younger days I had been to the track more often than most. Every once in a while I had wound up at Yonkers Raceway, where in the backstretch, the lowlifes of the world congregated, and during my college years I spent many days and nights “improving the breed” as the poet said, at Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Truthfully, if one really pays attention, a more worthwhile education about the vagaries of life can often be found at the track. Certainly those frequent costly lessons are not for the faint at heart. Amazingly the last time I had placed a bet at Saratoga was almost 40 years earlier to the day. My grandfather, John Kivo wanted to take a trip up to Saratoga and see old friends and relatives. He was then 80 and probably thought that this might be his last chance to visit the track. (Luckily that wasn’t so. My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 87, and Linda, her father Morris Rosen, who loved the track, my grandfather and I, went to see the 101st racing of the Belmont Stakes in 1969!) So in the middle of August of 1966, I drove first up to Albany to visit the Myers in their wonderful house on Marion Avenue. Forty years later I would be taking their son out to lunch at the Bagel-Bite. The Myers were lovely people and always incredibly gracious, so our visit was quite pleasant. After saying our goodbyes, we were back on the road to Saratoga and the Gideon Putnam Hotel.


In 30 minutes or so my grandfather, and I arrived, checked in, unpacked and once we were comfortably billeted in the venerable edifice, we planned our strategy for the coming few weeks. I had brought a little money with me and each day we would drive to the track, park, walk to the gate, grab lunch, look over the Racing Form and the Daily Program, make our first bets, and wait for each race to begin. Eventually, as it happens with most bettors, time and the odds are not on one’s side. If one bets long enough, the chances of winning decline markedly. So after four days or so, I was “tapped” out! Therefore I decided to improve my mind and body and not go into further debt with my grandfather. I parked myself by their terrific pool, spent time with my weights, that I had left in the trunk of my 1963 Chevrolet Super Sports convertible, and settled in to a pattern of exercise, sunning, and reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I still have the book, it was a gift of my sister and inscribed …Christmas 1959!)) Two of those tales always stuck in my mind, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Bernice Bobs her Hair. Each morning I would shuttle my grandfather back and forth from the big oval on Union Avenue and go back to the hotel to my established routine. My grandfather had made friends with a couple named Liguori from his early days in Saratoga. He made plans to meet them and of course without my fore knowledge they appeared. It seems that Rose Ligouri had worked as a hostess in one of the Lake Shore Hotels where gambling operated outside the purview of the law as the local officials looked askance. Gambling had legally existed in the “Casino,” which was, and is still located, in the center of Congress Park. In 1911 it was closed down and the owner was paid $150,000 for his inconvenience. When the new “law and order”, boy governor, Thomas E. Dewey was elected in 1942, the Lake Shore Hotels were forced to shut down their back rooms. With regards to my grandfather’s friend, it seems Mr. Ligouri was said to be in the “dry cleaning” business in New Jersey, and who was I to question that fact? One thing I learned quickly, Mr. Liguori never went to the track but used to make a bet somehow each day. Unfortunately he was not doing well, and by the end of the week he was quite unhappy.


Eventually as the meet was coming to an end, Mr. Liguori came to me at the pool where I was reading and relaxing. He asked me if I could find my grandfather at the track and if I would place a bet for him. I said that I would be pleased to do it and he instructed me to bet on “a horse that I have since forgotten” in the feature race. He also told me to tell my grandfather what his intentions were. I was happy to comply, and was astounded when he gave me $1000 in crisp fifty dollar bills. He also gave me a fifty for myself and said that I could bet on the horse if I wished, and he had highly recommended that I do it. I did not need to be asked twice. I had some “mad” money left in my wallet, and I considered this occasion an unusually “mad” situation and therefore I knew all of it would be bet on this nag. I hustled into shorts and a shirt, ran to my car, and drove directly to the track. There was no real traffic; every one was at the track. I pulled through the open, and unattended gates, parked on the lawn next to the gate and walked right in. In a minute or so I found my grandfather, told him the news and went to work “spreading” the money around. I had been instructed to bet half of the money to win and the other half to place. I certainly did not want to go to one window and bet it all at once. I was afraid that so large a bet, seen coming from the hands of a 21 year old, would cause “tongues to wag” amongst the betting tellers. In those pre-computer days, the track offered separate $2, $5,  $10, and $50 betting windows for wagering. Today one would be able to bet any combination, at any window at the track, as long as that betting combination was authorized for that race. At the track every one is always looking for an “edge” and information is “king”. In fact, “touting” is a legendary activity at all tracks. So I was well aware that it would be wiser to “spread” my money around.


I was finally finished right before the horses reached the gate. When the bell rings, the gate opens, the horses break and the betting windows close. I was in no hurray to rush back to view the race. In those days there were not a lot of televisions spread around the grandstand. Eventually I was able to wedge into the crowd look up to the left and see the top of the stretch where the field starts to wheel into the final furlongs (A furlong is strictly a thoroughbred racing term, and it is equivalent to an 1/8 of a mile.) This now “forgotten horse”, with Helidoro “Gus” Gustines whipping and high up into the stirrups, swung five wide on the field and charged to the front. As I ran to the finish line and tried looking over the twenty-deep person crowd, I realized that our horse had won and had paid a hefty price!


I immediately ran to the windows to collect with all my various win and place tickets, I received all sorts of monies, and I almost needed a bag to hold all the cash.

Meanwhile I was a little concerned about walking alone towards where my grandfather was stationed. For one reason my pockets were bulging. My grandfather was also quite happy with the results of the race, but I was concerned about holding all of Mr. Liguori’s winnings. Therefore, I would drive back to the Gideon Putnam and return later to get him. Mr. Liguori already had heard the good news, and as I recall these forty years later, he had a large toothy grin spread across his broad face. There was more good news. Mr. Liguori gave me a very, very large tip that paid a lot of bill far into my senior year at Boston University. So along with my own “meager” bet that returned around $500, I was now “in the chips” for the fall of 1966. Later on at Boston University I met my old school buddy Gil Wang, from Yonkers and Roosevelt High School. He and I had spent many nights together at various sporting (hockey) and racing venues. I told him the story of the bet, and he told me that he had also been at Saratoga that past summer day. Gil had been a camp counselor for many years, and the camp was near Saratoga and he often went to the track. Talk about a “small” world.


Meanwhile Linda and I had other adventures in lovely Saratoga Springs over the years. Our daughter applied to Skidmore and was on the waiting list when she accepted Rutgers in 1989. When I was a young boy my grandfather and parents raved about a local Saticoy or melon familiarly known as the “Hand” melon. This melon was reputed to be the finest melon known to fruit connoisseurs around the planet. A man named “Hand” had produced it, and a small hand shaped design, which was inbred into the skin of the melon, could identify it. When I was first married in 1969, I had told this story to my father-in-law Morris Rosen, who loved fruit, and was quite incredulous about the existence of this mysterious melon. No matter how much I insisted, I got nowhere. A few years later when Linda and I happened to be driving through Saratoga, I again brought up the subject of the “Hand” melons. Amazingly as we were driving along one of the local roads I stopped at the sight of an old hand-made wooden sign with the words HAND MELONS SOLD HERE! Immediately I slammed on the brakes, skidded to a halt and u-turned back to a small fruit and vegetable stand. Boy did I feel vindicated. Now it was the trick to buy this mysterious melon and see how it tasted. Unfortunately the vindication was short-lived. I learned to my abject disappointment that the weather-beaten sign was indeed not only old, but antiquated and inaccurate. The young proprietress had heard of the melons, but had not seen one in years.


Back to the present, my “one bet” adventure at the Saratoga Racetrack was now history, I walked back over to the Racing Hall of Fame, met Linda and we got back into our car and headed off to Plattsburgh, where we would stay the night before our sprint to the border the next morning. I sort of missed “hanging around” Saratoga for another day or so, but we had a date in Montreal for lunch, and Plattsburgh was where we were headed for dinner and the evening.


If you didn’t know, Plattsburgh is only forty miles from Canada and many of the signs around that town are bi-lingual. Plattsburgh doesn’t have much to offer, but it is the home of the local state university. It wasn’t hard to find, and we did an obligatory drive around the campus so as to say we saw it. So, after our short tour, it was back on Route 87 and northward to the border and Canadian customs. After a 15-minute wait at the border, we were asked by the Canadian customs official what our intentions were. We told him that we were visiting for pleasure and had only one bottle of white wine to declare. He didn’t seem too concerned and we were on our way in Montreal to meet Linda’s distant, distant cousin at The Black Tulip, which was located conveniently right off Route 15 in Montreal and at the Ruby Foo’s Hotel. We had never met Carol and Howard Blank before, but Linda had been communicating with Carol by email for years. Betty Levitan, Carol’s mother was a cousin of Linda’s father, and we saw her often over the years. She was always a lot of fun and had a great sense of humor. Unfortunately she died of pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my father. The Blank’s generously treated us to lunch, the conversation was animated, and fun was had by all. We parted as new friends and headed right back on the road for our 94-mile trip to Route 117 and into the Laurentian’s and the town of Mont Tremblant.


The time-sharing property, owned by Club Intrawest, is exquisite and the surrounding hills and lake are as picturesque as one could imagine. Tremblant Village, which is an $850 million creation built into the mountains and one, can ride the sky lift right from the center of town to the top of the mountain sky trails. Frankly it’s pretty breathtaking. After frolicking around the Village for a few days, we headed southwest for a two-day trip to the Canadian capital of Ottawa. The 100-mile drive to Ottawa is through sparsely populated Quebecois countryside. With the empty countryside, there is not a lot of going on, and therefore the narrow roads were quite empty and we could easily average 110 kilometers per hours (65 mph). (All distances of the roads in Canada are based on the metric system.) We made one stop in Montebello, which features the massive Fairmont Hotel, the largest log-built structure in the world and the home of a wonderful golf course. We had a picnic lunch and continued onwards toward Ottawa.


Ottawa is by far one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The governmental buildings, which surround and include Parliament, are remarkable. We walked all around, took a tour of the interior of Parliament, which included the Senate, the Commons and the Library and were generally quite impressed. The city is very clean and very bi-lingual, because Ottawa, though located in the Province of Ontario, sits across the Ontario River from the Province of Quebec. Its open-air market and culinary center, Byward, is pretty remarkable. We spent a lot of time walking around and shopping. I found a terrific toy soldier store, located at 8 Byward Market Square and acquired two Mounties and a great Iroquois warrior. There are great museums in Ottawa, which we unfortunately had to pass up, but it will encourage us to return. Ottawa has a shopping mall located on Sparks Street that runs through the center of town and one can find all sorts of sweaters and collectibles, along with unlimited Indian art. We stayed in the fabulous Westin Hotel that overlooks the center of the city and Parliament Hill. From our 18th floor room, with its floor to ceiling windows, we were able to have a bird’s-eye view of a nighttime light show from the Hill that painted the Parliament’s nine story Peace Tower with a myriad of colors. So Ottawa is fabulous, a worthwhile visit for anyone, and not insanely far away!


Eventually it was back on the road to Mont Tremblant, where we played tennis, watched the US Open in French, read our books and traipsed all over the Village and its shops. We planned to leave a day early and stop in Montreal, walk around a bit, and go to dinner with some old business friends the Bordoffs. We had a wonderful room on the 34th floor, at the Sheraton, located on the Rue Rene Levesque. It seems that since Montreal really embraced the Quebecois separatist mind-set, and many of the English and non-French left for Toronto, things have changed in that old and beautiful town. One thing they did was to rename many of the old streets after party hacks like Rene Levesque. I had wondered where Dorchester Street had gone? I thought that type of activity only happened in Russia with towns like Volgagrad and St.Petersburg. But, be that as it may, the city is still a real delight and the “old” city area is a joy to walk about. Along the Rue Notre Dame and south towards the St. Lawrence River and the grounds of the Expo, the cobble stone streets near St. Denis and Saint Antoine bustle with activity. The outdoor cafes, the street hustlers, the young and old lovers, the galleries, and tourist shops explode with life. After walking around and dropping into as many stores as possible, we headed back to our hotel, rested a bit, and awaited the Bordoffs. Lawrence and Claire picked us up, and took us to a great fish restaurant called Le Nantua on Rue Notre-Dame Ouest. After our meal we drove up to Mount Royal and had a great late night view of the city. Every time, since I was first in Montreal in the 1950’s, I have looked down on the city from Mount Royal. It is a kind of a ritual. We even were taken to a bagel-making factory where we watched the bagels being twisted and baked late into the night while Lawrence picked up two-dozen of his favorites. So it was finally back to the Sheraton and bed. The next morning we had breakfast on the 37th floor over-looking the city and the St. Lawrence Rive and the states to the south.


It’s a 350-mile trip to Tarrytown, and we planned to get halfway and stop once again in Saratoga. We thought the town would be empty in the wake of the end of the August racing meet, but it seemed that Skidmore College was welcoming their new students for the upcoming semester, and the Main Street was jammed. We had lunch, drove around a bit and headed south on Route 50 to find the Thruway. But as fates would have it, Linda spied a fruit and vegetable stand and we pulled off the side of the road. Of course, as a matter of course I asked about the availability of a “Hand” Melon. Lo and behold the owner said he had some extra ripe ones that usually sold for $2 per pound! He would sell us one for half price because the top had been cut off. We found out that the “Hand” melon was created and licensed by one John Hand in 1934, and is grown today by a third generation of the Hand family and they that have a farm in nearby Greenwich, NY. Even though they have over 400 acres, very few are devoted to this special cousin of the cantaloupe. In fact, it is said, that at some of the more trendy restaurants at the Saratoga Race Track, “Hand” melons go for $8 per slice. He offered us a bite of the melon, and we were not surprised, the taste was fabulous. We bought, for half-price the six-pound melon and placed it in our cooler and got back on the road. I had finally found the mysterious melon, because of our serendipitous stop in Saratoga. We were back home in Tarrytown in a few more hours, watched Ms. Sharapova beat Ms. Henin-Hardin 6-4, 6-4 in the women’s tennis final of the US Open and finished half of the melon. The next day we watched the men’s finals with Roger Federer handily beating Andy Roddick and finished the remains of that same melon. My fifty-year quest for the “Hand” melon was over, and we were both convinced that the “Hand” melon is unsurpassed in taste.




1 thought on “A Day at the Races, Hand Melons and a Night in Ottaw 9-9-06

  1. PS: I had for 40 years thought that the horse who won the race was Stage Door Johnny, who won the Belmont Stakes the next summer. Because I wanted to know the price that he paid, I called and emailed the Racing Hall of Fame archivist, Allan Carter. Surprisingly he told me that Stage Door Johnny only ran at Saratoga one time and in a daily double as a yearling. Therefore he could not be the winner of that race.

    He did the research for me and determined that the “real” winner was Two Stelle, who won the 6th race and paid $24.80 to win and $6.20 to place.

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