words & photos below by TERESA GENARO
Featured photo by Susie Raisher. Race replays courtesy The New York Racing Association
editor’s note: I asked Teresa to write about returning to a summer of racing at Saratoga after a first half of the year that included being diagnosed with–and treatment for–cancer. She was trepidatious at first, but gradually found the words among shared experiences with family and the horses. I’m glad she did. -@EJXD2
My family gathers in the backyard at Saratoga on Labor Day.
My mother prepares a cooler of sandwiches and snacks; we bring cans of beer and plastic bottles of wine (no glass allowed) and water; my brother and I secure the same picnic tables at which he has sat for decades, and at which I joined him 17 years ago, when I began my Saratoga homecoming.
For our family, closing day is both festive and forlorn. My parents still live in Saratoga, in the house in which my brother and I grew up, and it’s in the summer that he and I are most likely to both return, so closing day means not only the end of the track, but also the end of regular family get-togethers. We’ll see each other again soon…but maybe not until Thanksgiving, and for us, that’s a long time.
And as I’ve gotten older, Labor Day brings not just mournful thoughts of the closing of the race course, but the nagging, ineluctable awareness that someday, not all of us will be there.
For the last nine years, I’ve been fortunate to spend all or most of the Saratoga race meeting actually *in* Saratoga: working at a place I cherish, returning to a town I treasure, seeing the people I love, renewing old friendships and making new ones. The track offers its own kind of family reunion, with trainers, jockeys, and writers from across the country converging on the Spa City, and I look forward to it all year, setting preparation in motion usually before the snow is gone from the Oklahoma training track.
This year was different.
Last December, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, throwing all of 2017 into uncertainty. My doctors assured me from the beginning that I would be fine, one of them adding “after a crappy year,” but this year, the person who starts planning her summer in winter had to apply the brakes, seldom able to plan more than a few weeks ahead.
And while my attendance at racetracks through the first six months of the year was scant, my connection to racing was undiminished, thanks to the many people at the track—friends and acquaintances, professional contacts and personal connections—who seldom let a day go by without a text, an e-mail, a food or flower delivery, a card. From Gulfstream to Aqueduct, Pimlico to Saratoga, the racing community offered literal and figurative embraces.
As cancer goes, I have been incredibly fortunate. The first 12 weeks of my treatment were relatively, as my oncologist put it, “easily tolerated,” and while the second round was a tougher go, I was able to continue teaching throughout, taking off the occasional day here and there, and I kept writing, though not as much as usual. My surgery at the end of June went even better than my surgeon had expected, the recovery was manageable, and pathology tests of breast tissue and lymph nodes showed no cancer cells.
Still, as anyone who wagers there knows, Saratoga was no sure thing. My oncologist had encouraged me to rent my house as usual, saying that she was confident that I’d be able to spend “a reasonable amount of time” there…but as someone who holds dear every single moment in Saratoga, I was a little skeptical that her idea of reasonable and mine were alike.
Opening day this year was July 21, and I had my first post-op appointment with her on the 17th. It was at this appointment that I’d find out whether I needed radiation, and whether Saratoga this year for me would mean 40 racing days, or maybe only a dozen or so, whether I could keep the writing commitments I’d made, whether that rental house was a practical business investment or a complete frivolity.
Throughout the last nine months, there have been multiple moments to be grateful and to celebrate, but few have matched the moment when Dr. Oratz told me that not only did she not recommend radiation, but that she was absolutely opposed to my having it.
I have never packed so fast in my life.
Being in Saratoga felt like victory. Not over the disease—it’s hard to imagine ever feeling that—but over circumstances, over treatment. It felt like the beginning of the reclamation of my normal life, though never far from my mind was my surgeon’s admonition that though by the end of the year I’d be back to myself, it would be “a new self, a different self.”
This was, for sure, a new and different Saratoga. Getting up at 5am, daily practice in years past, almost never happened. I saw only two sunrises. I wrote less. I didn’t go to the races every day. I took naps.
For the first time, I attended the New York Racing Association’s fundraiser luncheon for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, thanks to a kind and generous invitation from NYRA. I saw people who hadn’t seen me since last summer, facing their questioning looks and distressed surprise when they saw my bald head. By the time I got upstate, I had long since abandoned head coverings of any sort; wigs were hot, scarves made me look like a pirate, hats were fine but often a nuisance, and I lived in fear that one would blow off and spook a horse on the track or in the paddock.
But within weeks, strangers were approaching me to say that they loved my haircut and wished that they had “the guts” to cut their own hair that short. I gained back some—OK, a lot–of the weight I’d lost; is there any place better than Saratoga in the summer when your doctor orders you to put on a few pounds?
Walking through the clubhouse one day, I was stopped by an usher. A NYRA employee, he’d come up from Belmont, and despite how different I looked, he recognized me.
“Oh, how good you look!” he said enthusiastically. “So much better, so much healthier! I pray for you, honey. God bless.”
[It sounded a lot better in his Caribbean accent.]
Steps later, I was stopped again, this time by owner Mike Repole, who’d been startled when I approached him at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale after he’d bought a horse.
Surrounded by his family, including his two-year-old Gioia, he said, “I had no idea. No idea. How are you? What do you need? Anything I can do? Anything?”
[It sounded a lot better in his Italian-American accent.]
And then he bent to his daughter and said, “Tell Teresa we’ll pray for her,” and she put her hands together, solemnly repeating what her father had said.
And then, a few weeks later, it so often does, racing—and Saratoga—delivered the kind of moment that you’d swear was made up if you read it somewhere else (or saw it in a movie).
On August 24, my parents and I and my two housemates had a plan to have lunch in Lake George; when entries for that day came out a few days earlier I told them, “OK, but we have to be back by the eighth race.”
Entered was a three-year-old named T Loves a Fight, a horse I’d tweeted about last summer at Saratoga, then forgot about. He broke his maiden at Aqueduct in January, on a chemotherapy treatment day for me, a day that had begun in an operating room at NYU Langone Hospital, having a port installed in my chest to facilitate the infusion of drugs into my body. Still, somehow I saw that he’d won and texted his trainer Mike Hushion, a friend of mine and a veteran of a cancer diagnosis and happy prognosis: “Lots of people might think she’s my namesake.”
On the day of the Wood Memorial, one of my few trips to Aqueduct, T ran—and won—on the undercard, his third win in a row.
In honor of all the people who have blocked me, going in AQU7 with T Loves a Fight.
— Teresa Genaro (@BklynBckstretch) April 8, 2017
Four months later, at the end of May, and three days after my final chemo treatment, I was at Belmont Park for the first time this year, assigned to cover New York Showcase Day. It was an awful day, the track sloppy, and I’d be lying if I said I was happier to be at the track than home in bed.
Until the seventh race, the Mike Lee Stakes, when the bay gelding showed his love for the mud and cruised to a 2 1/4-length win.
Hushion invited me to join him in the picture, but because I was covering the race, I had, regretfully, to decline, but he found a way to work me in there anyway.
And then this happened, creating a story that felt too good to be true, except that it is.
The Symanskys and the Hoffmans made me a part of their extended family, checking on my health and inviting me to T’s races with them (my parents and I went to Belmont to see him the day before my surgery), offering friendship and support to a nearly complete stranger who had sort of decided that she was a part owner of the horse, albeit one that doesn’t pay any bills.
So on August 24, when we got to the track after lunch in Lake George, when T Loves a Fight and John Velazquez charged down the stretch to win by a length and a quarter and pay $16.20, we celebrated more than just cashing tickets (though all of us did, and that was pretty sweet, too). My mother burst into tears, and I ran to the winner’s circle, and this time, with no journalistic restrictions on me, I accepted the Hoffmans’ invitation to be in the picture, a picture that couldn’t mean more to me than if T had won the Travers.
A week and a half later, we were back at the track for closing day. There were some changes this year: we added a few to our party, one of my nephews was already back at college and couldn’t make it; we moved from our usual spot. Our tradition had evolved, but at the end of Saratoga 2017, not, for now, too much.
May we say the same in 2018.