A Day at The Spa: July 25, Opening Day

Spend a perfect day at the Spa

Spend a perfect day at the Spa.

You’ll wake up when the dawn is breaking and slide into worn jeans, pull on a light sweatshirt to mask the morning’s slight chill. There will be a few hours to spend at the Oklahoma training track, and you’ll stand at the rail and breathe the pungent, pleasing odor of sweaty flanks and dew-stained grass, watching as horses and riders come lolloping over the freshly-turned dirt course.

You’ll exchange pleasantries with a few trainers – perhaps Rick Violette will speak of his 2-year-old starters; a horse named Song’s Image, the one called Fed Watcher – or Ian Wilkes will mention Street Sense (“Yeah, yeah, he’s doing great, he’s doing good”), or Todd Pletcher will offer reassurance on Rags To Riches’ condition, which is currently uninjured, fingers crossed, just so you know.

You will see the jockeys’ agents zipping here and there at top golf cart speed. Jerry Hissam will have Calvin Borel in tow, riding high after their recent success aboard Street Sense and ready to try the nation’s toughest meet for the first time. Matt Muzikar will be hawking the talents of Eibar Coa, leading rider in New York last year, still on a roll today. Angel Cordero Jr. will ride out on Pletcher’s string of workers and won’t spend a single second pushing John Velazquez’s book. For Johnny, he will tell you, the trainers come to him.

You will buy the Form, stroll to Bruno’s, order a cup of coffee, sit out near the sidewalk, try to dissect the upcoming races. You will notice in race one that Jorge Chavez is back from California, and that Taming The Tiger looks to be sitting on a win if he draws into the field, and that 20/1 is a heckuva longshot for a Steve Asmussen trainee, even if he did pull the outside post.

You’ll finish your coffee and meander back to your season rental, where you’ll dress for the races – khaki pants, sharp summer shirt, navy blazer. You will saunter forth with a billfold full of money and a spirit full of goodwill, and you won’t even mind when a security guard halts your progress to direct the steady flow of incoming traffic. You’ll smile at him, and at the boy who is hawking two-dollar tip sheets, because this is opening day at Saratoga and Saratoga, in a word, is wonderful.

The air will be enlivened with the rise and fall of many cheerful voices; there will be a happy mixture of women’s vibrant clothes and short skirts and tan, graceful legs, and the more reserved hues of male fashion. Certain people will catch your eye – a pretty girl, a father with two sons in tow, an old man holding a straw boater in his work-worn hand – and you will nod and smile and politely let your eyes slide away to other things.

Then, at eleven a.m., the gates will open and the heels and loafers and sandals and boots and sneakers will cross the asphalt, scuff through the gravel, and flatten the grass, and there will be two hours remaining until first post.

There will be time to find a seat in the clubhouse or the grandstand. You will spread your Form across the seat and leave it there as you walk down to stand near the rail, and it will remain untouched until you return.

You will amble over to the paddock and slip inside as grooms lead the first horses into the enclosure, and there will be the familiar flurry of activity as sheets are pulled aside and gleaming muscles are revealed, and the trainers will fold saddle towels into place with the smooth motions born of experience. 

You will watch the first post parade, you will shout with the rest of the crowd when Tom Durkin leads a rousing “And They’re Off!” and in the first race (perhaps a glimpse of victories to come?) you will pick a winner.

You will walk down past the clubhouse to enjoy Reggie’s Red Hot Foot Warmers playing the tunes your grandmother used to sing – “Nothing Could be Finer than To Be in Caroliner” and “Blue Heaven” and “I Met My Love In Avalon.” Then you will buy a hot dog and lean against a post and watch the ebb and flow of racegoers as the call to the post is sounded once again.

You will miss the early double by one digit, pick losers in the third and fourth, score big in the fifth, play a hunch bet in the sixth, smack yourself in the head over the seventh, sulk and sit out the eighth, pick another winner in the ninth, pick 4-5-6 to win place and show in the tenth, and watch as they finish 6-5-4 to close out the day.

You will wander through the maze of fallen tickets, discarded programs, and empty bottles to the parking lot where traffic will snarl up in a mini-gridlock and you’ll be glad you walked. Across the fenceline, a band at Siro’s will be striking up a tune, and the music will draw you in to drink a little, dance a little, dine a little. You may even be persuaded to sing along with Roger Morris at the piano bar.

“I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere…”

Night will fall, and lights will come on all over the city, and just like that, the day will be over. There you’ll be, on Nelson Avenue, strolling home through the Saratoga evening – and a warm feeling of contentment and of belonging will fill your soul. 

Tomorrow there will be other horses, other races, other parties – another day at the Spa.

Tomorrow, you could do it all over again.