And Finally, a Word from our Fans - 9:06 a.m.
Overheard during a stroll through the picnic area:
"This is a quaint old place."
"Do they have more than one escalator here?"
"We've gotta pray for sun."
"I'm the horse that broke slowly in the third and finished last in the fifth." - racing fan with broken leg and crutches
"Whaddaya think about going home and taking a shower?" Grungy 20-something after securing picnic table with buddies
"It's really exciting here, this is where he started screaming 'Go seven, go seven!' while he hit me on the head with his program." - unenthusiastic girlfriend, watching a replay with one of her boyfriend's college buddies
"The Travers? I forgot all about it last night."
"This is fun, this is fun!" - Dad to crying toddler
Ten Commandments of Saratoga - 8:55 a.m.
Rick Hayes of South Burlington, Vermont, knows how to command attention. He has roped off a section of benches in front of the clubhouse by taping up printed copies of his "Ten Commandments of Saratoga," reprinted here with permission from the gracious author, of course.
1. Know thy limitations, betteth not the rent money
2. Follow the path of righteousness, betting only 3-5% of betting capital on major wagers
3. Sendeth through the window only 1% of betting dinero on exotics, and avoideth therefore the occasion of tap out
4. Drinketh not while on pari-mutuel duty
5. Lendeth not thy money at the track, for the last shall be the first, therefore robbeth not thy brother of good post position in paradise
6. Betteth not every race, for judgement cometh soon for all who do not wait for the Golden Opportunity
7. Fear not though you walk through the valley of the shadow of financial dispair, betteth on the golden overlay, for therein lies salvation
8. Do not get "stuck and steaming"
9. Baileth not out in the 9th race, for the sun also rises on another day
10. When all else faileth, pray and remembereth, nothing under heaven and earth heals as fast as a brokenhearted horseplayer.
Voice of Experience - 8:30 a.m.
Closer to the winners' circle, Dan and Sharon Bellotti are saving seats with friend Marilyn Ciarla. The Bellottis have been coming to the Travers for 30 years. Ciarla has them beat with 38. There's only one Travers they remember like yesterday, even though they can't recall the year.
"It was the time we had a thunderstorm and lightening struck the track," Ciarla says. "We were standing right here, holding umbrellas in the pouring rain. Yes, that was a memorable moment."
The Bellottis are going with Street Sense.
"We won't make any money, but you don't make money in the Travers," Sharon Bellotti says. "It's just the thrill, that's what we come for."
Ciarla picks Sightseeing.
"Favorites never win the Travers," she says.
"Not 'never,'" Sharon Bellotti corrects.
"Okay, hardly ever," Ciarla says.
Sharon Bellotti rolls her eyes. "Unfortunately, we pool our money," she says.
Winning Trifecta - 8:15 a.m.
On a bench past the finish line, Rhode Islander Tom Kerry sits with son Tom Kerry Jr. and friend Mark Cimino. They each like a different horse to win the Travers. Kerry is going with Street Sense, because "he's the favorite" and "he's gonna go by 'em." Kerry Jr. picks CP West, because "he's won for me before." Cimino likes Sightseeing, because "Prado is riding him, and he's a good jockey."
Maybe they have the winning tri.
Cash in your Chips - 8:00 a.m.
Behind the racing office, the Horse Racing Radio Network's morning show is underway. Guest Eric Wing of the NTRA is evaluating the field. He's going with a horse most people haven't thought of - Neil Howard trainee Grasshopper. Still, Wing stops to give credit to Carl Nafzger, because everybody respects Street Sense.
"Nobody is better than Carl Nafzger at having his chips in the middle of the table when it means the most," Wing says.
And today the odds are stacked in his favor.
They Don't Get Past Al - 7:45 a.m.
At the bottom of the press box stairs, NYRA Peace Officer Al Hunt stands vigilant guard. He's worked for NYRA 13 years, has been on guard duty at the press box for the past 11. He doesn't remember a specific Travers, has no favorite runner from years past. But he has a good quote, and that's all that matters.
"The best part is the excitement," he says. "The whole season builds up to this point, so it's the main event."
Hunt's job doesn't change on Travers day.
"It's pretty much the same," he says. "I only allow people in the press box who are supposed to be in the press box. It's standard operating procedure."
What's the worst part of his job?
"Dealing with the people who don't understand they can't go up there. They want to get "up top." It doesn't matter what's up there, they just want to keep climbing stairs. They try all sorts of Tomfoolery to get up there, but they can't. The ones that DO get up there go up the back stairs or the turf terrace dining room, or other places. They don't get past me."
Derby Has Nothing on the Spa - 7:20 a.m.
In a corner of the grassy area near the paddock fence, Thor Kongvald and Tom Olsen watch artist Bob Clark as he puts the finishing touches on a portrait of West Point Stables' Flashy Bull. Kongvald and Olsen are first generation Norwegian Americans, their parents came over from Norway, they point out, and be sure to say that. Okay.
Kongvald is from Statten Island, Olsen is from New Jersey. They've been coming to the Travers for more than five years. Olsen has his Travers pick all lined up.
"You have to go with the local favorite," he says. "Nick Zito. CP West in a big upset, forget about Street Sense, forget about Sightseeing. CP West all the way."
Kongvald is not as decisive.
"I haven't looked at the race yet," he says. "But I'll tell you one thing, I'm going to look at the program, pick my horses, and stay with them all day. Because every time I go out there to place a bet, I end up changing my mind and regretting it. I'm staying with my picks. All day. All day."
Kongvald waxes poetic.
"I've always said, Kentucky's got the Derby, but New York has Saratoga - and it's just as good... or better. The pagentry, that's what I'm all about. I like the pagentry."
There will be plenty throughout the day, that's for sure.
"Like the Running of the Bulls" - 7:13 a.m.
Security guard number 100 (he won't reveal his name) stops to complain about the morning rush.
"Man, they open those gates and it's like the running of the bulls," he says. "This whole area behind me fills in like four minutes every year."
A few yards away, brothers Jason and Matt Meyer and friend Michelle Jammal are setting up a sun tent, pulling the components from a large wagon. Jason is a Saratoga resident, Matt and Michelle live up near Buffalo. They've been coming to the Travers for the past three years.
"Treats," Matt says, unpacking the cooler. "Lots of treats."
"Good job, good job," Jason remarks, as he watches the others work. He expounds on the social obligations of a Saratoga resident at Travers time.
"If you live in town, you have to go," he says. "No question. It's an event. A social event. You must be seen. Absolutely."
Is there a strategy for getting a good table?
"You have to come in from different angles. Plan your attack. You have to be fast. You have to be agressive."
Running of the bulls, indeed.
Travers 500 - 7:00 a.m.
The gates at Saratoga open promptly at 7:00 a.m., and five seconds later the picnic areas are flooded by a rush of running fans. WIth limited space, the sections fill up quickly, and the mad dash to claim a table or a section of lawn looks like the beginning of a wild frat party. Yelling, jumping racegoers hurdle obstacles in the path as they fight for the open areas. The security guards look on with contempt, and one stops an overenthusiastic fan from dashing across the horsepath - but then a flood of 20 or more runners charge the chain and duck under.
What's the picnic area look like thirteen minutes after the gates have opened? Going down to investigate right away.