SARATOGA SPRINGS – For a quarter-century, you could set your watch by his actions. Many of the world’s great equine athletes did: the easy saunter across the race course accompanied by a clanging bell; the casual stroll into the Winner’s Circle; the fussing with his horn’s mouthpiece, the adjustment of the microphone stand and then finally, the swift hoisting of the bugle to his mouth and sounding for all to hear his call to the post.
It is a routine Sam “the Bugler” Grossman performed many times a day and several times a week over the period of 25 years. With the conclusion of the 2018 season at Saratoga on Sept. 3, Sam the Bugler sounded his horn one last time.
“I love the beautiful vibrant people here and the people at Belmont as well,” Grossman mused while standing in the winner’s circle and surveying the crowd on the final weekend before his retirement. “I’ll miss the people, but you know what? Every gig has a certain life, no matter what it is. And when you’re a musician you wake up one day and you know when the gig is over.”
The New York Racing Association, for whom he worked, celebrated Grossman's long tenure by naming Labor Day’s fifth race in his honor and presenting him with a commemorative bugle and plaque.
The Long Island native began playing the trumpet at the age of six. He studied music at the University of Miami, where he earned both his bachelor's degree and a master's degree in music education. Grossman began his career with NYRA at Aqueduct Racetrack in the spring of 1993. “I had never gone to a horse race in my whole life, but somehow, I knew I would get the job,” he explained.
He says some of his fondest memories were watching Rachel Alexandra win the Woodward in 2009 at Saratoga and witnessing Jerry Bailey on Cigar - the thoroughbred nicknamed “America’s Horse” and whose popularity earned him a police escort down Seventh Avenue en route to his retirement party at Madison Square Garden in 1996.
“You know, it’s kind of a weird thing being a trumpet play from Long Island, but when one of your friends wins the Derby – like when ‘Chop-Chop’ won the Derby (jockey Jorge Chavez, 2001), I had just been playing ping-pong with him the day before. He said: I’m going to win the Derby tomorrow. And he did, on Monarchos. So, that’s just a really weird element of my life.”
With his red jacket, black hat and clutching his omnipresent horn, Grossman could often be found In between races among the crowds. “I walk all around the facility and entertain anyone who wants some entertainment: play a song, take a photo, tell a story. I usually make the stories up,” he says with a laugh.
Following his retirement from full-time duties with NYRA, Grossman will relocate to Florida, where he will reside with his wife, Laura.
In 2005, his image was immortalized in the form of a 7-inches tall bobblehead doll, which was distributed to racecourse patrons. “Unreal,” he recalled, standing in the winner’s circle and gazing up at the throng awaiting his bugle call. “How would you feel if you looked up to see people holding up 30,000 dolls with your head on them?”