SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – They lined up in a drizzle, some here since 6am, with coolers and lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Hundreds of them waited for the wrought iron gates to swing open.
Suddenly, at 7am, they were gone! Moms and Dads. twenties and teens. They spread like hail, turning the well-trodden grass and dirt paths into a highway. All looking for a slice of horse heaven to call their own.
Nothing says Saratoga Springs is back like the daily run for the backyard picnic tables at this historic circuit. It was a total sprint to a hull of splintered wood, the choice of which (horse players are superstitious species) could determine the fate of their afternoon gambling fortunes.
Nirvana was found next to the paddock under an old leafy maple tree and a short walk from a gambling window.
Eyeball thoroughbred horses up close? bill.
Avoid lines at betting windows? bill.
Want to stay cool on sweltering hot days? bill.
Once their kingdoms were secured and their tablecloth rule established, some went to the racecourse platform to watch thoroughbreds leaping through the mist during morning workouts. Some had coffee and The Daily Racing Form waiting in their hotel rooms or rental houses. Others returned to their pillows.
This racetrack, this city, is a place where traditions – how, well, strangely – dictate the rhythm of the day.
You’re guaranteed to hear a bell echo from the winner’s circle exactly 17 minutes before post time, for example a nod to the time before public address systems existed, reminding riders that a race was approaching.
Last summer, however, the bell rang, but few heard it as the pandemic shut out horse players and horse enthusiasts alike.
Now that the enthusiasts are finally allowed to return, the Spa, as it is known, is once again jubilant.
Across the street at the Brook Tavern, where handicappers and a few turf writers hang their rigs, the bar fills up again with chatter about bad beats and good bets. Tables are full and walk-ins spill over to the parking lot. The same goes for The Wishing Well, a family-run institution that dates back more than 50 years, further down 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 finishes late in the evening with the precious staff – her adult children Matthew and Cristina.
Still, the work is worth it, as most days involve a grateful hug from guests that she endured and socialized for decades.
“It’s getting out of hand,” she said with a tired smile.
Unlike participants in other sports, riders are often part of the crowd, who take a long walk from the track through the backyard to the jockeys’ room. Children join the hunt and ask for autographs or their driving glasses.
Before the pandemic, horse players, a cranky bunch especially when they lose, often took the opportunity to express their displeasure with the jock’s ride. Not so much this summer. Even if the coronavirus doubles, there is a sense of relief here, of liberation.
Apparently it’s enough of a joy to lose in person one more time.
John F. Cox has been here since he was 2 years old from his native Lexington, Ky. for the sale of Whitney Handicap and Fasig-Tipton yearlings. When he was 8, his grandmother woke him up at 5:30 am to watch his favorite horse, the big cigar, train.
After going missing last year, Cox, a public affairs manager for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, wrote a poem after his most recent pilgrimage. He simply called it ‘Saratoga’.
Let’s give him the last word on a place that many of us own.
A passionate lover
And a sworn nemesis.
Would love to see her come
I hate to see her leave.
Ponies win and lose.
Money comes and goes…
… But most of the time it just goes.
Whether it’s the suits,
Or slumbering with the scabs,
We’re basically here for the same things
Usually there is laughter and laughter.
And when the party’s over,
Back to the Bluegrass I go.
See you next year; next summer,
My dear friend and foe