Just back from five nights in Nashville to see my friends Jeff and Deborah.  I flew there last Wednesday night on a half-empty 737-800 from Newark.

Jeff’s been touting the week-long Kentucky Downs meet for many years. This visit was centered around attending the final three days of racing at the esteemed gathering of turf horses competing for $15.9 million in purses.  

To monetize the rising popularity of the meet, Kentucky Downs ended free, open access to the paddock and finish line this year.  Freebie general admission spectators were limited to a grassy area at the quarter pole in front of the gaming parlor that includes an upper level simulcast space.  Those who wanted to see the races’ outcomes in front of them were forced to purchase tables of eight at prices ranging from $369 to $795 depending on the day.  

Jeff and I lucked into seats at those tables on two of my three days there thanks to his friend Jim who bought in.  On Sunday (the meet’s final day), we were told the track bent their rules a bit and were selling individual seats at tables rather than forcing the eight-seat buy.  

On the day we opted for the GA space, it worked out fine because Jeff brought fold-up chairs and we set up shop under a large canopy erected by the track.  

The racing was exceptional.  On Saturday, there were two races with purses of $1 million, two at $600 thousand and one at $750 thousand.  Almost all of the races have fields of 12 with alternate entries ready to draw in should a horse withdraw.  

The track itself is unique.  Just barely north of the border with Tennessee, Kentucky Downs in Franklin, KY sits alongside a growing and popular casino called Mint.  The smoky gaming floor features machines deemed “historical horse racing” in concept to conform with state law but players stare morosely at the screens as if they were any other run-of-the-mill slot machines.  

The mile and five-sixteenths long course is Euro-like in look and feel.  It turns sharply left out of the main straight then throws an odd, soft right turn at the field on the backstretch before bringing them back left into the final turn.  Both a decline and incline of significance appear on the backstretch.  Even the home stretch appears to be less than flat.  The dryness and heat last week turned the course a bit brownish on the final weekend but the footing’s consistency is aided by the fact the track is used just a week out of the year. 

Participants ship in from all over the US and Europe.  The meet’s prestige has skyrocketed in the last five years or so as purses went through the roof.  The meet’s September timing also offers a nice stepping stone to the early November Breeders Cup event.  

New York-based jockey Joel Rosario won four races on Sunday and 17 on the meet which is difficult to do at such a competitive gathering of talent.  Every time you looked up, he was finding space at the rail and pushing the go button.  Rosario rode my pick of the visit Beantown Baby on Thursday and finished second.    

Not to get conspiratorial – or to in any way diminish the greatness of the horse meet – but Jeff and I witnessed what appeared to be a serious placing error in Thursday’s second race.  The 30K claiming contest for fillies and mares (non-winners of 2) ended with what looked to the naked eye as a clear victory for the number 11 Swanage.  Both Jeff and I stood near the finish line and saw Swanage hold off a late charge by number 2 Treaty of Paris.  Swanage won by what appeared to be about a half-length or maybe a neck plus.  After a lengthy delay (and supposedly a review of the replay and photo), track announcer Larry Collmus said Treaty of Paris had won!  “It’s official,” said Collmus.  

Jeff and I laughed.  How could it be?  Several minutes later, the track put up a photo showing Treaty hitting the line a hair in front of Swanage.  Was the photo doctored?  Or was the camera that obtains that view set up in the wrong spot?  

As the day wore on, other fans continued the debate.  I spoke to a guy wearing owner’s credentials issued by the state of Kentucky who was openly incredulous about both the photo and the placing.  

Smoke from western fires dimmed the hot sun a bit on both Saturday and Sunday.  There were no attendance numbers announced but at no point on any of the days was it difficult to find a place to bet, a bathroom or a spot along the rail.  Southern hospitality was in full effect throughout.  

Local haze was sipped after the races.  Saturday evening was especially pleasant as we sat at a table out in front of Southern Grist’s flagship location with a ten-ounce pour of just-brewed Insert Juicy Pun.  

We ate well too.  The pozole verde (served in a paper cup) from Mas Tacos was amazing.  We ended the weekend eating great burgers in a unique outdoor amphitheatre setting at the Pharmacy.  Deborah (author of maxleonread.com ) picked up hot chicken one night and southern style breakfast biscuits on my first morning in town. 

On my way out of Nashville Monday morning, the airport was packed.  Music City is a popular place for a weekend visit even with its current hot-spot-for-virus-transmission status.

The recently-released, once-a-decade census data puts Nashville’s population at 689-thousand, the 21st biggest city in America.   The “metro” area number is just under two million.  It’s not clear what effect the pandemic may have on breakneck momentum there but Nashville has long been in steady boom mode.

Monday’s edition of Nashville’s daily newspaper made no mention of the racing at Kentucky Downs, devoting most of its sports copy to the surprising blowout loss to Arizona by the football Titans the day before.  

On arrival back in New York City Monday afternoon, there was a noticeably big charge, a big pulse on the train and in the streets thanks to the return of about a million public school kids.  Monday was the first day back.  About six-hundred thousand students opted for remote only last school year.  That option doesn’t exist this year.  It’s a huge marker in the comeback attempt and it feels really good to see the energy the youth provide back in the groove.  Hope we can safely pull it off long term.  

Today, I stumbled upon a ceremony at the small sliver of park across the street from Lincoln Center.  It’s there that the city has a monument erected celebrating the life of Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  A few dozen were gathered around a lectern where speakers were talking about “Dante” and his legacy.  He died on this day in the year 1321.  There was a beautiful breeze and the 26-foot Dante sculpture on a large pedestal stood tall.  I knew nothing about it before today.  

It’s 18 months now since the virus went viral in the U.S. – and for me – exactly six months since my second shot.

The subway reopened 24/7 in mid-May and the city used a new ranked-choice ballot in the June primary to pick the guy who is a lock to be the next Mayor.

Our Governor is quitting in shame at a minute before midnight tonight after a nearly eleven-year run of scheming, steamrolling, basking, bullying, charming, chest-thumping, credit-taking and being a creep.  He’s being replaced by an affable upstate chops-lacking politician who occupied a ceremonial next-in-line post.    

My employer was the first (and only) major US air carrier to announce a vaccine mandate for its workforce early this month.  It was met with a tacit thumbs-up from my union – and a full embrace from the super-progressive flight attendants union.  The airline I work for is starting to feel like an airline again with a modest move each passing month to rebuild and restore a domestic flight schedule that goes places people want to go with some frequency.  International flying is another story as the US government refuses to lift a ban on visitors from most of the advanced world.  Reciprocity be damned as Biden allows Americans to go to and fro but bars vaccinated Brits, Canadiens, French, Germans, Italians, etc. who are anxious to come this way.   

I’m still wearing a mask pretty much all day, everywhere outside the apartment.  It’s required (although not enforced much) on the job, the train and bus, in the elevator.  And in the few places where it’s not a requirement, I’m generally leaving it on in the name of continuity (no futzing with the on and off) and solidarity with the masked forces who feel safer circulating in a place dense with humans.  A lot of people here have quit with the masks, moved on, required or not.  

One of the things that really helped from making me go nuts from the start of all this is a conscious decision to be fiercely non-judgmental about any and all of the folks who are going rogue.  The anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, the deniers, deliberately or thoughtfully so – or not – with their conduct -. all of them. I observe them.  I think about them.  But from the first, tense days of the worst of the pandemic, I decided outright that I would not allow even a tick of blood pressure to rise from these folks to protect my own sanity.  

That’s not to say elected nudniks like DeSantis and Abbott aren’t acting criminally with their behavior.  It’s one thing to advocate against lockdowns and restrictions as a risky gambit to preserve the economy.  It’s quite another to issue executive orders that tie the hands of local jurisdictions on safety measures like masking in schools and vaccine requirements.  

The vaccine is real.  It’s great.  It’s available and appealing now even to many who were initially hesitant.  

The legitimate protection the shots offer – and the timetable under which they were created, tested, approved and rolled out is way beyond expectation.

The difficult challenge now will be to repair and rebuild our face-to-face ways across the sectors of life here.  A full return to school is big as is the reopening of Broadway.  The Times reported in late March that the amount of available office space in Manhattan right now (101 million square feet) is more than all of the combined office space of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas (Matthew Haag, NYT).      

Last Friday’s (Aug 20, 2021) subway ridership total was 2,457,500.  That’s one-half of normal for a weekday in late August.  The daily turnstile clicks are published on the MTA.info web site and are a helpful barometer of where the city is on the comeback effort.  I check the numbers often although I can see it with my own eyes as I ride the train day and night.  The comeback effort is being fueled largely by the same people who worked through the worst of the lockdown combined with those sent involuntarily to the bench, now called back into action.  

One of the yet-to-be-understood big pieces of getting the city going big again are all those who are working from the places their employers have allowed them to be holed up at.  When – if ever – do they rejoin the rest of us and work in a collaborative, get-it-done, go-to-lunch, talk-it-over, exchange ideas, cut a deal, stop-at-the-water-cooler, kinda place?  

The tourists will be the easy part.  They’ll come when Broadway is lit up and Biden says the border is open.  The pizza, I can attest, is as good as ever.