Ten races remain at Saratoga, and soon it will be time for the final start of the season.
Standing outside his barn on the Oklahoma side of Saratoga, Bob Baffert holds court with the media and smiles. He talks about Midnight Lute's victory in the Forego (gr. I). About how rewarding it is to win a race like that at a track like this. About how good it feels to be back.
Spend an afternoon with the boys from Boston, a group of not-quite degenerate 30-something horseplayers who bet the races with varying degrees of success each time Saratoga is in session.
"I like the winners circle! I want to put one in my house!" - hotwalker Iain Holmes after visiting the one at Saratoga with a Michael Matz winner.
Turf writers are an infamously hardened and cynical bunch. We take all information not only with a grain of salt, but with the entire shaker and a pinch thrown over the shoulder for good measure. We want the truth, but it is so rarely handed to us that when it is, we have a hard time beliving it. Still, few other sports writers are so dedicated to the game they cover, and while we may appear apathetic at times, we want the best for racing.
The starting gate will always be a dangerous place, but thanks to Bob Duncan and Roy Williamson, it looks a little safer going into the meet's final week.
It begins as the horse vans start rolling and the racegoers consider filling their suitcases once again. For now, on the final dark day of the season, we contemplate the week ahead and savor every thought of Saratoga.
The Travers blanket - red and white carnations, white "T" in the middle - hangs in front of Street Sense's stall at the barn of Carl Nafzger and Ian Wilkes. The bright colors are still vibrant, and Nafzger is still savoring the victory this morning
The canoe in the infield pond has been painted in James Tafel's colors of yellow and blue. Street Sense is safely recovering from his exertion. Another Travers is in the record books. Talk about feeling the air go out of the balloon
Saratoga fans are the real deal. No irate ripping of tickets and cussing of jockeys here, at least, not often. The fans come to eat, to bet a few races, to catch a glimpse of great horses, to have a good time. They are a mix of partygoers, vacationers, tourists, and backyard barbeque chefs, with a few serious horseplayers thrown in for good measure.
Down at the front of the chute between the paddock and the racetrack, the pony boys sit and smoke and kill time between races. Theirs is the unenviable job of escorting the normally fractious and wired-up Thoroughbreds safely to the gate; their ponies, thus named because they are not racehorses, provide a calming presence for the high-strung starters.
While slightly difficult, it is entirely possible to come to Saratoga without watching a horse race. You can come, for instance, to enter the hot dog eating contest Ã¢â‚¬" and if you are like Crazy Legs Conti from New York City and can consume 21.5 hot dogs as he did yesterday, you can also win.
Wednesday morning, the cameramen are in full swing at Saratoga. In the paddock, they cluster around for the Travers draw, tripods balanced like long-legged storks. In the winners' circle, they form an orderly line for Senator Bruno's conference on the fight against horse slaughter. Down near the rail, they lift cameras to shoulders and zoom in for local track reports.
Yesterday, after the Saratoga winners' circle had cleared following the first race celebration, jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. stood and watched the replay. He held his 18-month-old son, Norberto Arroyo III, and smiled as he watched the image of his winning mount flash across the screen. It felt good to be back.
Cut the audio on a day at the races, and you'd still have a completely interpretable scene. The bettor, slumping his shoulders and running a worn hand over his worry-creased forehead, equals losing. The trainer, leaning forward in his box and jumping to his feet, beaming, as his horse crosses the wire, equals winning.
A collection of noteworthy quotes from last week's backside meanderings...
In the stable yard in front of Todd Pletcher's main shedrow, blacksmith Ray Amato is fitting Octave with a new pair of racing plates in preparation for her start in this afternoon's Alabama (gr. I). The gray filly stands draped in a black blanket, four white bandages encasing her delicate legs. Her ears slump sideways, eyelids droop at half-mast. She yawns and rests, quietly at ease.
Workers come out after the break, when the track is freshly harrowed and smooth as soft brown sugar. Most are ridden by jockeys dressed in trendy casual-wear, shiny helmets, spiffy vests. They stride onto the surface, jog up the wrong way, turn, gallop into it, get set down, and - boom - kick into high gear.
Today's feature is the Adirondack - $150,000 for 2-year-old fillies. As with all "baby" races, there's not much to go on as far as past performances are concerned.
On an ordinary day, it takes two minutes to drive from Route 29 to Saratoga's main gate via East Avenue. This morning, the same route took 35 minutes. It's giveaway day, and the spinners are out in storm to bring home today's featured item, a red Saratoga lawn chair in a handy carrying bag.
Last night at Fasig-Tipton's preferred sale of New York-breds, Nancy Purcell and Pat Crampton leaned on the rail outside the walking ring and eyeballed hip number 342.
Last night, the Jockeys got off to an aggressive start and left no doubt as to their agility, rattling the usually unflappable Texas Titans as they took control in the first quarter of the Aug. 9 New York Race Track Chaplaincy's Basketball Fundraiser for jockey Andrew Lakeman, who was paralyzed in a racing accident earlier this year.
See the twisted figure standing near the Oklahoma track? Yes, that's Javier Castellano, and it looks like he's attempting to master some absurd Yoga pose as he bends over backward with hands clasped above his head.
At 8:30 a.m., under Saratoga's At The Rail Pavilion, the 2nd annual backside breakfast is underway.
Evenings in Saratoga bring another feeling, one of frantic energy, and of adrenaline, and of the intensity of short, fast-paced hours. No place emphasizes this more than the Fasig-Tipton sales grounds, where the vigorous pursuit of Thoroughbred yearlings at auction began with yesterday's opening session for the two-day select sale.
In honor of (and caused by) an 8:00 a.m. deadline, Hall of Fame inductions, an upcoming afternoon of racing coverage, and an evening of sales assignments, we defer to a smattering of quotes and scenes witnessed by your faithful correspondent, who peruses the backside of Saratoga (almost) every morning.
Up in the press box, half a dozen men peer down upon the congested scene. They wear baseball caps and sunglasses, keep pairs of binoculars close at hand, follow the progress of the galloping horses with obsessive concentration. They are fixated upon speed, and upon the tracing and recording of it.
Former NYRA executive Bill Nader is visiting from Hong Kong, where he's the director of racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Want to watch a race from the rail? 1 1/8-mile events are the best. The starting gate is pulled up close to the winner's circle. The action, so often relegated to the backside, takes place before your eyes.
Just before 6:30 a.m., a flurry of excitement hits the gap near Union Avenue. Accompanied by Todd Pletcher on his chestnut pony, Rags to Riches walks onto the track.
Once there was a horse named Dominion, a determined runner who put Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable colors in front of the racing world at tracks from Chicago to Saratoga. He was a blue-collar horse with rarely seen determination--he would run on the dirt, turf, soft, hard, long, short--and he would lay his heart on the line to get to the front and stay there.
So here we are, six days of racing behind us and more than one month left to go, which is either good or bad, depending on how you look at it.
Stroll through Michael Matz's shedrow and you'll undoubtedly come across Iain Holmes. He's the only hotwalker who speaks fluent English--which is what you would hope, since he comes from that side of the pond.
Perch on a picnic table near a small barn in Clare Court and take a long look at this year's Kentucky Derby winner...
Whether you're from Providence, Boston, New York City, or destinations beyond and between, Saratoga is the summer place to be.
Barclay Tagg rides down the horsepath aboard a chestnut pony. Watching near the gap, Jose Santos stops in his tracks. "Is that Funny Cide?"
It's Angel Cordero Jr. bobblehead giveaway day at the Spa, so the logical procedure is to interview Angel Cordero Jr.
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