Well placed: Sonny Taylor nearing 50th year with NYRA
Calling the races
One dead heat is just like any other dead heat after almost half a century of watching races, even if that race is the $1 million Travers Stakes at the Saratoga Race Course.
"It just happened to be the Travers," said Sentell "Sonny" Taylor , 76, a placing judge for the New York Racing Association. "We judge it like any other race."
Determining last year's tie between Golden Ticket and Alpha hadn't come with any extra pressure on the three placing judges, who call their act from the bird's eye perch of the track a "three-man ballet."
Taylor said it took about five to 10 seconds to help make Travers history.
In 49 years with the New York Racing Association, he has seen a lot of history, including three Triple Crown winners, a lot of almost-Triple Crown winners and the work of horses like Ruffian and Dr. Fager.
His relationship with NYRA began in 1964, shortly after he was discharged from the military, where he served as an ordnance supply clerk and rose to the rank of corporal. Taylor 's uncle, the head clocker at the time, offered him the job of assistant clocker. He had been working for the postal service in Chicago, but when the new opportunity presented itself, Taylor said, "I thought, this looks like a better job."
He became the official timer for NYRA's three tracks in 1971 and became a placing judge in 1981, which is what he still does.
Three placing judges
There are three placing judges for a race at Saratoga and they're stationed on the highest level of the stands, with a short walk along a catwalk to reach the main room and wraparound area with large windows that is their office.
Taylor mans a small corner with a computer and small television and has a view that covers the entire expanse of the track.
His first duty of each race is to flip a switch at post time that turns on a flashing red light outside their office that is visible to a starter on the ground, who knows he can start the race once the light is on.
During the race, Taylor and the other placing judges perform their most notable function to fans watching the races at home and keeping track of the order with the numbers that periodically get updated on the screen.
One judge watches the race with binoculars and another one watches on a television screen, and Taylor is responsible for entering into a computer what they determine the order to be during the race.
Like the choreographed ballet that they proudly profess to be, the three men scurry away from their posts after the race and head into the adjacent room where there is a monitor set up to determine photo finishes.
After conferring with the track's stewards and checking that the tote company has calculated its payouts, Taylor hits a button on his keyboard with the label "OFF" and all over the grounds people can hear track announcer Tom Durkin declare the race's results official.
From track to track
The whole affair is a strict routine, but it's not monotonous to Taylor , who does the same thing all year round, traveling from track to track.
Most of the year he lives at his permanent residence in Queens, but during the Saratoga meet he lives on Loughberry Lake Road.
He described the lifestyle as different, saying, "You're never in the same place all the time. I like it."
Throughout his long career, which will continue as long as he feels good, Taylor said the Saratoga Race Course hasn't changed that much to him. He did note, while wearing dress slacks and a tie, that the dress code for the track has become much more relaxed.
"People used to come dressed up," he said. "You couldn't come in the clubhouse unless you had a jacket on. Now they come in with shorts and jeans. They took a little of the class away from it."
One thing that hasn't changed, and remains a consistent joy for him, are the talented horses that continue to come across his viewing stand day after day. "I've liked a lot of horses," he said. "Too many to tell."
But without missing a beat, he starts to rattle off the name of greats he has seen, like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Alydar and Affirmed. Thinking about the list, he concludes, "I saw a lot of good horses."