Every year around this time I think about my late father-in-law, James F. Norton, Jr. Each summer he would make his sojourn from Monmouth Beach to upstate New York — to visit the dynamic village of Saratoga Springs (and its associated delights). It opened its 156th horse racing season this week.
Before he died in 2012, Jim told me that be had been making that trip more than 60 summers. His reverence for Saratoga — and by direct connection top-notch thoroughbred horse racing — all started with his father, Dr. James F. Norton.
A highly regarded OB/GYN physician from Jersey City and the president-elect of the American Medical Association at the time of his death in November 1950, Dr. Norton taught his only son to study and love the Sport of Kings.
Jim told me that his father, in addition to being a “wonderful physician,” could “read a racing form like a pro.” A 1918 graduate of the Columbia University School of Physicians & Surgeons, Dr. Norton loved the energy of racetrack life. “Dad said that horse racing was the most cerebral of all wagering sports,” Jim said. “He taught me that thoroughbred handicapping required a real skill and a dedication.”
Situated in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, a half-hour north of the state capital Albany, Saratoga Racetrack is steeped in tradition and old-style class — it’s “where the past comes alive.” The oldest thoroughbred racecourse in America (August 1863), some of the sport’s greatest horses and horsemen have competed there. But to Jim, who for many years was perhaps the most respected trial lawyer on the Jersey Shore, Saratoga was more than just horse racing. It was an event.
“Saratoga represents a reaffirmation of racing as enjoyment.”
Known for its health-giving sulfur springs as well as its racetrack, Saratoga opened during the Civil War. Today, the whole area is one of history, art, culture, and relaxation. There is an abundance of quality shops and restaurants (Jim was the foremost practitioner of fine dining). Theaters, museums and festivals abound. Nightlife is vibrant or sedate — depending on your needs. And for those looking for more than just the racetrack tan, there’s golf, fishing, boating, and hiking.
Like everything in life, not all Saratoga memories are fond. Jim told me his dad once stopped to aid some people hurt in an auto accident during a summer trip up to Saratoga from their Jersey City home. After administering care to the strangers, he was hit by a motorcycle as he returned to his own car. “He was never really the same again,” Jim said. “It’s too bad. He was just doing his job — being a doctor.”