Tall and thin and with a swoop of red hair that ignites in the sunlight, 17-year-old Terrence Maydick stood at his post and watched the fury of thoroughbreds noisily cross the finish line.
“I love watching the races,” he said, the collective roar of 25,000 people funneling through the golden-topped turrets of the grandstand roof behind him. A moment later, in the post-race calm, Terrence Maydick sat back down atop his simple wood chair inside of the Winner’s Circle, and began to count time.
There are approximately 33 minutes in between the races and the 60 seconds in the middle belong to him. At the 17-minute mark, he will begin his routine. First, he will rise from his chair and fix a set of earplugs to either side of his skull. Then he will flick the switch to the open position on a microphone holstered near the jockey scale. He will attach his right wrist to a leather strap which dangles from a silver bell in the corner of the winner’s circle, and with an authoritative tug of the chain propel the clanging sound skyward, where it will travel across the red and white canopy landscape and spill along the 350 acres of Saratoga Race Course. Maydick will ring the bell exactly seven times. He will do this 10, 11, 12 times a day, six days a week, before the start of every race and for the duration of the 40-day meet. There are worse ways to spend the warm-weather months.
“I had a couple of jobs set up for this summer. But, after I went to the NYRA job fair this came along and just seemed much more exciting,” said the 17-year-old, who will return to the realities of the world in September as a senior class student at Saratoga Springs High School. “This was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
If the origins of the bell-ringing practice at the racecourse are not exactly clear, it is a fair bet that the practice grew from the centuries-old traditions in village squares, when the clanging of a bell would mark time, alert residents of danger, or gather the townspeople for an important event. The bell-ringer is one tradition; the bugler is another.
“I’ve heard so many different explanations about the bell over the years, but the true story is that it was to let the horse trainers know it’s 17 minutes to post and that the horses should be getting saddled,” said Sam “The Bugler” Grossman, who has been calling horses to the post since 1993, when the former resident bugler cashed in his winnings on a Pick 6 bet and quit.
In an era before signals bounced off satellites, the bell and the bugle alerted both horsemen and gamblers where the horses were. “I’ve talked to some old-timers who remember those days, and I’ve seen the pictures. Imagine 40,000 men wearing suits and wearing hats, all running in at the same time,” Sam said, laughingly.
In a digital age of rapid texts and instant images which blaze across dozens of television viewing areas at Saratoga Race Course, neither the bell nor the bugle are a necessity as much as they are part of the culture. This is a place where the layers of history are wedged in the moments in between the seven strikes of a bell.
With the first clang, John Morrissey’s ghost rises from the paved lot across Union Avenue, where the first races were held. The second clang immortalizes the founders and builders whose names are imbedded in the names of races, The Travers and The Sanford and The Whitney, among them.
When the bell is struck time and again and the wave of sound fades across the backyard of this field which was built in 1864, history reveals itself in a gray, rectangle-shaped coach stepping stone--which hides beneath a flurry of pink and white petunias at the grandstand entryway--and provided a platform for ladies of the Victorian Age to gallantly hoist themselves onto their horse-drawn carriages. Here, is the pure connection from gaslight to electricity, telephones to satellites, carriages to trolleys, automobiles to airplanes, and human survival during a series of seemingly never-ending wars. Through it all and still, the bell continues to ring.
Tradition is one of the magical things of sport. The other is hope; despite the outcome, there always will be another chance. There is a marked beginning, a competitive contest in the middle, and a definitive end at the conclusion of the final quarter, or period, the last inning, or round. In sport, there will always be another race, another chance, another bugler’s call to the post, another bell to ring.
We're introducing a new feature on Saratoga Wire with this column. Each week Thomas Dimopoulos takes a look at the many untold stories of our community. There are so many great stories out there, we expect that he'll be at it for a very long time.
Thomas Dimopoulos is a local author who has a knack for storytelling, and a gift for finding some of the best-kept secrets in Saratoga Springs.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter at @thomdimopoulos
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