Sam Grossman, aka Sam the Bugler, facing health issues and will not play at this year’s Saratoga Race Course meet
Sam Grossman at the Belmont Stakes in 2018. All photos herein posted with permission from Sam Grossman's Facebook page
By Dan De Federicis, Saratoga Report publisher
Saratoga Race Course will have a different look and feel this year, as long-time track bugler Sam Grossman will not be at the storied thoroughbred race track playing the Call To Post and the other tunes that are requested of him each and every day of the meet.
“I took a routine blood test after changing insurance,” the South Florida resident explained. “The results were catastrophically bad and I went directly to the hospital for kidney failure.”
Despite his deep disappointment that he won’t make the Saratoga meet amid his continuing battle to get healthy, he remains positive and upbeat. He noted with pride that he is down 26 pounds and plans on continuing to lose weight until he is down to 185 pounds. He acknowledged that his excessive weight on his 5’8” frame made him obese, and he also declared “I had my last drink.” Although he is not out of the woods and won’t make the meet this year, he said that his kidneys are working again and he expects to come next year.
He spent an hour with me last week explaining his current situation and we went into his history at NYRA, how he got the job along with some of the high points and even a low point. Some know Sam Grossman’s story, but many don’t, and it is one worth telling.
“Some people think I bought a horn in a pawn shop and ended up as the NYRA Bugler,” he explained. “But I was a classically trained trumpeter by my mother as well as Vince Penzarella of the New York Philharmonic and Gil Johnson, the principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra.” The Long Island native also holds a Masters degree in Education.
“One can say I was a bit overqualified to play at the track,” he deadpanned. He nonetheless attended an audition held by NYRA in 1993 despite never being on a race track in his life. “I only did it as a goof,” he said. “I thought I’d do it for a few weeks.”
He stayed a bit longer than a few weeks. He is quick to spread praise, and gives immense credit to Jay Cohen, the bugler at Santa Anita Park racetrack, for helping him throughout his career. “When I first started I asked the jockeys “who is the best bugler?’ and they all said Jay Cohen,” he said. “I bug him several times a month about costume, equipment, schtick.”
“This is the first Saratoga meet I am not going to since 1993 and I’m sad”, he lamented. “But I didn’t take care of myself during the pandemic and I almost died.”
When asked about his popularity and longevity at Saratoga, he displayed a deep understanding of the attendees. “I understand that people wait all year to go to the track for a couple of days,” he said. “I’ll help anybody.” He recalled times when patrons accidentally spilled their cooler of ice, and he ran to the jockeys room to get them some more, or a time a child was stung by a bee and Sam went to the gift shop to get him a stuffed toy.
Grossman sometimes give children wood train whistles after the last race. "Kids don’t enjoy the track the same as adults," he said. "I try to engage them on their level."
For the most part, however, Sam will deflect any accolades about him to Saratoga – both the track and town. “It’s not similar to anything…the people aren’t similar…I couldn’t love them anymore than I already do. It’s like you went to a different planet and I am very proud to be part of that.”
He notes he will miss “a million little things”. The Bread Basket – “coffee and pastry on that patio” , Augie’s – “The Kitchen Sink…the Chicken Parm”, Winslow’s in Wilton – “It’s like Thanksgiving there”, Solevo – “Giovannina – she comes out all by herself and makes sure every single person is a happy camper.” He reminisced about 1 Caroline, the former restaurant and jazz bar, and the fact that the late Marylou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson would personally thank him for playing.
He recently wrote a beautiful Facebook post about his friend Kevin McGrath, the owner of the Community Court Motel who died in May. Sam often played in the parking lot of the Broadway motel and in some of the rooms. “Where else can you find a Jew in a Foxhunt costume to entertain you every night?” he asked. “A bugler from the track pops in and plays ‘Danny Boy’”
His nearly three-decades long tenure was not without some low points. He freely talks about the night in 2013 before the Travers Stakes when, after consuming several drinks and then driving, he was pulled over and arrested by Saratoga Springs Police. “I am the perfect person to be at the track and help people have a good time,” he observed. “But I am not a perfect person. I was ashamed. I regret it, and I wish I could go back. But I owned it and pled guilty to DWAI four days later.”
Saratoga can be an exhausting place to work, and it’s tough for someone as visible as Grossman to find solitude. “If I’m out to dinner, they want me to go out to the car to get the horn,” he wearily notes. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I was kidnapped. One guy called his friends from the car and said ‘I got the bugle boy – he was at Stewarts’”.
Grossman is deeply disappointed about missing Saratoga this year but positive about his future. He continues his recovery with the help of his wife Laura and his sons Aaron, 26, and Maurice, 24. He beams with pride about his sons’ impressive educational accomplishments and flourishing careers, and lovingly describes Laura as “the nicest wife in the whole world.”
Sam and Laura Grossman at Saratoga in 2019
Of Saratoga, Grossman expresses appreciation and love. “I’m grateful for every single minute I had in that town,” he said. “Next time I play, I won’t be that bloated old man. I’m going to be a fit version of Sam because I want to survive.”
And as far as his future employment, he won’t rule out a venture into politics. “If I ever run for mayor in Saratoga Springs, I’ll win by a landslide” he declared with a mischievous grin. “My slogan will be ‘Vote for Sam – the other guy blows’.”
Publisher’s Note: Here’s wishing Sam Grossman continued recovery and many more years of living – and playing the horn at Saratoga Race Course. Thousands of fans are pulling for you Sam, and we can’t wait to see you in 2023!
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