By Terese Karmel
For nearly a quarter of a century, Denny Brace has guarded the gap at Saratoga’s Clare Court training track, among the loveliest spots at the racecourse, as if he’s watching over the crown jewels.
And in a way, he is—as he recalled some of the champions such as Skip Away and Funny Cide who have walked through the gap and onto the soft, deep dirt of the half-mile training track, a leafy oasis in the shadow of the larger, noisy, sun-baked main track.
Brace, 65, is such a fixture at the prestigious summer meet that years ago, an anonymous person made a wood sign with the words “Denny’s Gap” painted on it and posted it near the Clare Court track opening. Each day starting around 5 a.m., there he is at his post—a hunched figure with a shock of thick gray hair atop a handsome, weathered face. Leaning against the fence with his coffee cup and Daily Racing Form in hand, he is a familiar sight to horsemen, who call out greetings to their long-time friend.
“There’s nothing like the backstretch,” said Brace. “Everyone gets along here. I can tell somebody I have to see someone and they’ll be here in 10 minutes.”
Brace, who lives in nearby Milton, N.Y., with his sister, has been around Saratoga Racecourse since he was 7 years old.
“He was here before the track,” trainer Richard Schosberg teased early one sunny morning as he led one of his runners onto the track. “But seriously, he’s the best gap looker-after in the history of the game. It’s an important job. You have to pay attention and be alert, and you have to anticipate what happens.”
Veteran trainer H. Allen Jerkens has known Brace for decades and like Schosberg, praised him for his diligence and quick thinking. “He’s saved a couple of wrecks,” the Hall of Famer said in recalling some experiences at Denny’s Gap.
These kind words seem to embarrass Brace, a humble man of few words, but someone who obviously takes pride in what he does. “If there’s a loose horse, I close the gap and keep the horses on the track,” he said. He also works in the track paint shop.
“All of this used to be private,” Brace said, his arm sweeping across the elm-tree-studded oval. Built in 1905 by August Belmont as a private training facility, Clare Court was named for Tom and Ann Clare, both past superintendents of the main track. “She was here when I was a kid,” Brace said of Ann Clare. “She ran a tight ship. She was a very tough lady.”
Clare Court is also the final resting place of three horses with a Saratoga history: A Phenomenon, Mourjane, and Fourstardave. They are buried on the side bordering Nelson Avenue. Headstones with their dates and short inscriptions mark their graves.
There are no clockers at this facility, so the workouts aren’t official. Trainers hang over the white fence, near Denny’s Gap, with stop watches. Some mornings it’s like Grand Central Station with horses, many of them 2-year-olds, others recovering from injuries, working in bunches. Other mornings a lone horse and rider start their four-furlong workout in the shade and catch a flash of sun before disappearing around a sharp turn behind a bank of barns in the center of the track. With about an eighth of a mile left, horse and rider emerge from the dark side of the Clare Court moon and head back to the gap, where Brace has a brief chat with trainers waiting to lead their horses back to their barns.
They know that bright and early the next morning, Brace will be there to greet them as they begin another day with all the hope that a new dawn brings.