On Sunday afternoon (April 14), George Karam made the very familiar trek to Saratoga Casino Hotel. As is the case for many of the people involved in the sport, the 60 year old Saratoga Springs resident grew up as part of a harness racing family. His father owned horses and George caught the racing bug early on in his life. A longtime groom and assistant trainer to local Hall of Famer John Stark Jr., Karam came to Saratoga in the late 90’s to assist in his stable. George spent countless hours in the barn and in the paddock as Stark ran his top-flight operation. The Stark stable made history in the year 2000 when the veteran conditioner had five horses participate in the New York Sire Stakes Night of Champions. On that epic evening, Stark trainees recorded four wins and a second with the second-place finisher ending up as the runner-up to another member of the Stark barn. It was an incredible and historical night. The following year, Stark’s Bunny Lake was named National Horse of the Year after having a simply sensational campaign. All the while, Karam helped in the stable as the one of Stark’s top assistants.
Stark and Karam were connected long before the time they shared at Saratoga. Karam, a native of Rome, NY met Stark in the late 1970’s when John relocated to Vernon Downs from his home town of Buffalo. The two became very close when the Karam family gave Stark a horse to train. The friendship built from there with the two sharing their passion for among other things, NASCAR and the Buffalo Bills. As he continued his work alongside Stark, George became the President of the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association before leaving the stables close to a decade ago. In 2012, he took a job with the New York State Gaming Commission. After passing the necessary tests, Karam became a judge. With his history in harness racing, George seemed like a natural fit for the opportunity when it arose. The nature of the job though is such that oftentimes, you need to go to several tracks throughout New York State to work. He did just that for a period of time before landing what appeared to be the dream situation for the new judge. When an associate judge position opened up here at Saratoga, George fit the position like a glove. He was doing the job he had quickly picked up and really enjoyed and now was able to do it at the track where he had spent so much time over the years, a track that is almost in his back yard.
Up on the roof, my announcer’s booth is positioned next to the judges’ stand and subsequently I have a lot of interaction on a daily/nightly basis with the trio of stewards to my right. I’ve been fortunate in my close to twenty years upstairs to work with a lot of high character, high quality judges. George quickly rose up near the top of that list. He was always quick with a one-liner that would induce a chuckle out of me, sometimes so much so that I would need to force myself to stop laughing as I’d turn the switch on to call the race. His humor could be deemed dry but it was a quick wit, one that I always appreciated.
Last year, George got a promotion, advancing from associate judge to presiding judge when that position opened up at Yonkers. Though it is considered an occupational upgrade, the downside for George was that he would need to travel. With his family here in Saratoga, he decided to make the trip back and forth to Yonkers almost every day. At times, he would stay down there for a night or two but he spent a lot of time in the car making the trek up and down the Thruway. It was a job that he loved, though anyone would have to be less than enamored with the traveling aspect of it. While he was the presiding judge at Yonkers, George would still work upstairs here at Saratoga from time to time, filling in for one of our regular judges when the opportunity arose. With Yonkers not racing that day, it would almost always be a Sunday when George would join us to fill in. That was the case on the previous two Sundays, April 7th and 14th.
When the races ended at the Spa last Sunday, he returned to Yonkers for their Monday race card. At the conclusion of it, he went back to his hotel where he wasn’t feeling well. Karam collapsed and by the time help arrived to assist, he was gone. George had suffered some kind of medical attack and had passed away. The loss is so shocking and tragic that it has left many of us here at the track speechless and struggling to grasp it in the week following his passing. He was just here- laughing and joking as he did and chronicling his son’s journey set for the coming weeks with college visitations.
When George filled in, oftentimes his son Brandon would come up to the roof with us. Brandon is a junior at Saratoga Catholic High School and is a terrific kid. An aspiring broadcaster, the young man has done quite a bit to build his resume already and is in the process of touring several colleges, something George updated me on in the past few weeks. Brandon would come over to discuss broadcasting with me while he was on the roof, knowing of my background in the business or sometimes to simply chat about sports. I enjoy having those talks with such a bright, aspiring kid like Brandon, a kid that was truly the definition of a father’s pride and joy. Our hearts go out to all those affected with this shocking passing, especially Brandon and George’s wife Joy. May they somehow, in some small way, be comforted by the fact that George was so well respected in his role as judge, one that he took very seriously and one in which he thrived. The roof just won’t be the same without his impromptu one-liners and during football season, his chiding comments of his beloved (and hated all at the same time) Buffalo Bills. From his fellow judges, to members of the race office, my co-workers on the roof and the management here at Saratoga Casino Hotel, George Karam’s loss has hit hard. The shock of having worked with him just over 24 hours before his passing is hard to grasp and will undoubtedly take a long time to wear off. He loved the sport of harness racing but his true love was for his wife Joy and his son Brandon with whom he shared such a special bond. RIP George, I can’t believe you’re gone and you will be greatly missed. George Karam, gone too soon, at the age of 60.
Live harness racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon at Saratoga starting at 12 noon and on Saturday evening beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!