Time flies when you're having fun.
And for some of the senior horseplayers gathered at the Fort Erie Race Track this Labor Day weekend, a co-feature race will jolt their memories with reminders about just how much time has flown -- and how much fun they've had -- since one of the most memorable days in the Fort's 102-year history.
Can it be 38 years already since Puss 'n Boots -- the horse for whom one of Monday's two $30,000-added stakes races is named -- jumped into the middle lake in the infield?
The official chronicles of that Labor Day weekend Saturday -- Sept. 2, 1961 -- show an official attendance of 14,106. But over the years, it seems like millions of Fort fans have told their friends they saw it all.
In the interest of accuracy, and to refresh some dimming memories, the Happy Handicapper -- who admits he wasn't there -- last week went back in the archives to check out the details.
It was a muggy, 80-degree, afternoon that final session of the 42-day summer meet that had been dominated by jockey Avelino Gomez (70 wins in 205 starts) and trainer Frank Merrill (25 wins in an unrecorded number of races).
Merrill, who was en route to becoming the Fort's all-time winningest trainer (with an unofficial count of 540 career victories) would have had one more in his total, if it weren't for Puss 'n Boots.
Merrill had entered Puss 'n Boots, an inexperienced 2-year-old with only three dirt races under his belt, in the fourth race, an "about 7 furlongs" contest on the grass course.
As the race unfolded, jockey Ronnie Behrens and Puss 'n Boots -- who was sent off the slightly over 2-1 second choice by the bettors -- worked their way to the front, much to the delight of their backers, who included owners Walter and Roxie Gian, Buffalonians who had paid $28,000 for the colt at a yearling sale the previous fall.
When they turned for home, Puss 'n Boots led by a length and a half when he apparently got bored or scared or hot or something and decided to leave the course.
Near the eighth pole (about 220 yards from the finish line) he jumped over the hedge to his left, dumped his rider, and, in the words of the Buffalo Evening News report, "plowed through a flower bed, turned a somersault and slid into the deepest of the track's three lakes."
The next few minutes were almost entertaining enough to make the fans forget all about the money they had lost as Merrill, dressed in an expensive suit, and stable foreman Reggie Anderson led a six-man, one-rowboat rescue party into the lake trying to save the colt.
According to Daily Racing Form reporter Don Grisham, "a six-minute swim followed that resulted in four stable hands jumping in and one rowboat with a crew of two taking chase."
At one point Merrill yelled "Reggie, get out of here before you drown!" To which Anderson replied, "Boss, Roxie is upstairs. If we don't save this colt there's no use getting out!"
(Well, maybe it wasn't entertaining for everyone. The News account said "the crowd, which had bet $17,775 on Puss 'n Boots, booed (jockey) Behrens as he walked to the jockeys' quarters.")
Puss 'n Boots, who turned out to be a pretty good swimmer and runner, eventually was rescued and even went on to win a Fort Erie stakes race (the Niagara Stakes over 1 3/8 miles of turf) two years later.
Legend has it that Merrill, who would call Puss 'n Boots his Wonder Horse (as in "I wonder what he's going to do next"), said he was glad the owners were there to see it all. As he put it, "I would have hated to explain what happened over the phone."
While Puss 'n Boots was the last horse to jump in the drink, his stunt inspired the start of a new Fort tradition that started when the track named the stakes race for him three years ago.
After Dancing For Beans won the first running of the Puss 'n Boots in 1996, owner Bob Elkins took off his shoes and jacket and jumped into the third lake after the winner's circle ceremonies.
"I promised the boys at the barn that I would jump in the lake if this horse won," Elkins explained.
The next year, the race was won by Rifle Brigade, and the tradition was continued when winning jockey Eddie "The Fish" Robinson took a flying leap into the drink.
Speaking of Fort Erie "Wonder Horses":
* Bag the Devil, a 4-year-old gelding ridden by Clint Magera for trainer Candice Warwick, will always be remembered by Dominic Gambino, the Buffalo horseplayer who won the 1999 Ontario Handicapping Championship last Saturday at Fort Erie. Gambino had $150 in imaginary money riding on Bag the Devil, when the horse came from behind to win the first of the contest's seven races and pay $26.40 for $2.
With that big victory to his credit, Gambino was able to hold off some 20 other challengers and win the $1,000 first prize plus a free trip to Penn National Race Course for the World Series of Handicapping in October.
* Starzanne, a 5-year-old mare trained and owned by Norm Bowles, finally proved Tuesday that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again and again and again. After 35 straight losses, Starzanne finally found a field she could beat. With Frank Todd Jr. aboard, she scored a 1 1/2 -length win over eight other female maidens in an "about 7 furlongs" dash over the turf track.
* Trainer/breeder and part-owner Karl Frayne came up about 13 lengths short Saturday in his attempt to get a second win on the record of his Spanish Olive. The slow-developing roan mare is noteworthy because she never got to the races until last September, when she was 6. And she never won a race until Aug. 7, when she broke her maiden as a 7-year-old with a victory by a neck with Lisa Hammett aboard.