SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — They stood in line in a drizzle, some here since 6 a.m., toting coolers and lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Hundreds of them waited for the wrought iron gates to swing open.
Suddenly, at 7 a.m., they were off! Moms and dads. Twenty-somethings and teenagers. They scattered like buckshot, turning the well-trodden grass and dirt paths into a highway. All in search of a patch of horse heaven to call their own.
Nothing says Saratoga Springs is back quite as ebulliently as the daily run for the picnic tables in the backyard of this historic racetrack. It was an all-out sprint to a hulk of splintered wood, the choice of which (horseplayers being superstitious sorts) might determine the fate of their betting fortunes in the afternoon.
Nirvana was found alongside the paddock beneath an old leafy maple tree and within a short walk to a betting window.
Eyeball thoroughbred horses up close? Check.
Avoid lines at betting windows? Check.
Stay cool-ish on simmering hot days? Check.
Once their kingdoms were secured and their dominion established with a tablecloth, some headed to the apron of the racetrack to watch thoroughbreds skip through the mist in morning workouts. Some had coffee and The Daily Racing Form awaiting in their hotel rooms or rental houses. Others returned to their pillows.
This racetrack, this town, is a place where traditions — no matter how, well, odd — dictate the rhythms of the day.
You’re guaranteed to hear a bell echo from the winner’s circle precisely 17 minutes before post time, for example, a nod to the time before public address systems existed, reminding horsemen and horseplayers a race was nearing.
Last summer, however, the bell tolled but few heard as the pandemic locked out horseplayers and horse lovers alike.
With enthusiasts finally allowed back, the Spa, as it’s known, is once more jubilant.
Across the street at the Brook Tavern, where handicappers and a turf writer or two hang their tack, the bar is again filled with chatter about bad beats and good bets. Tables are full and walk-ins spill over into the parking lot. Same for The Wishing Well, a family-run institution that goes back more than 50 years, up the road in neighboring Wilton.
“It’s great to have people back,” said Bob Lee, who owns both restaurants with his wife Mary Alice.
At the Springwater Bed & Breakfast, where the employees wear T-shirts that read, “Sleep, Eat & Repeat,” the rooms for the summer have been sold out since June. The inn’s owner, Leslie DiCarlo, starts in the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. and ends late into the evening alongside cherished staff — her grown children Matthew and Cristina.
Still, the work is worth it as most days bring a grateful hug from guests she has put up and socialized with for decades.
“It is out of control,” she said, with a weary smile.
Unlike participants in other sports, race riders are often part of the crowd, having a long walk from the racetrack through the backyard to the jockeys’ room. Children chase along asking for autographs or their riding goggles.
Before the pandemic, horseplayers, a cranky lot especially when they lose, often took the opportunity to voice their displeasure with the jock’s ride. Not so much this summer. Even as the coronavirus doubles down, there is a sense of relief here, of liberation.
It apparently is enough of a joy to be allowed to lose once more in person.
John F. Cox has becoming here since he was 2 years old from his native Lexington, Ky. for the Whitney Handicap and Fasig-Tipton yearling sales. When he was 8, his grandmother woke him up at 5:30 a.m. to see his favorite horse, the great Cigar, work out.
After missing last year, Cox, a public affairs manager for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, wrote a poem after his most recent pilgrimage. He called it, simply, “Saratoga.”
Let’s let him have the final word on a place the possesses many of us.
A passionate lover
And a sworn nemesis.
Love to see her come,
Hate to watch her leave.
Ponies win and lose.
Money comes and goes …
… But mostly, it just goes.
Whether hobnobbing with the suits,
Or slumming with the scabs,
We’re here for the same things, really
Mostly thrills and laughs.
And when the party’s over,
Back to the Bluegrass I go.
See you next year; next summer,
My lovely friend and foe