Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2011

Stepping Back In Time At Saratoga

Over the years I’ve made my way to sporting events by all manner of transport. I’ve driven and walked of course, but also traveled by bus, subway, commuter rail, and even the Staten Island Ferry. But on Saturday morning for the first time in my life I was winging my way to an event in the back seat of a four-passenger Cessna 172. Along with two newly met friends, one of whom is a student pilot, and one long-time friend who is a former commercial pilot turned part-time flight instructor, I was flying from Concord, New Hampshire to Saratoga Springs, New York. Saturday was Travers Day at Saratoga Race Course.

With the student pilot at the controls and broken clouds overhead, we slid westward through the sky. As we moved from New Hampshire to Vermont the Connecticut River valley below us was a long ribbon of fog. The sight brought to mind a far younger edition of myself, and sharp and misty mornings in Hanover. It wasn’t long before the Hudson came into view, and then we descended to a smooth landing at Saratoga County airport, passing directly over the race track as we did so. A short cab ride later we walked through the wrought iron gates and into an older, simpler age.

Opened in the midst of the Civil War, Saratoga Race Course is the oldest organized sports venue of any kind in the country. Like Aqueduct and Belmont in metropolitan Gotham to the south, Saratoga is managed by the New York Racing Association. Every year its 40-day meet runs from late July through Labor Day. Fittingly enough for such a historic site, the Travers Stakes is the oldest major thoroughbred race in the U.S., having first been run in 1864. Contested at the American classic distance of 1 ¼ miles, the “Mid-Summer Derby” is always the highlight of Saratoga’s schedule, usually attracting an outstanding field of 3-year olds.

Like its sister New York tracks, Saratoga has three concentric ovals; an inner turf course, an outer turf course of just over a mile, and the main dirt track, which measures a mile and an eighth. The ancient clubhouse and grandstand run nearly the full length of the front straight. Behind these seating areas are myriad concessions and acres of picnic grounds surrounding the Big Red Spring, one of the natural mineral springs that give the town its name. In the midst of all this sits one of the most open, fan-friendly paddocks in all of racing. Before each race the horses are led along paths through the assembled masses, first from the barns to the paddock to be saddled and mounted, and then from the paddock out to the track. Seventeen minutes before each race a bell is rung, its notes echoing across the grounds through the public address system loudspeakers. It is the signal to the jockeys to make their way to the paddock.

On this day more than 43,000 fill the grounds to overflowing. But this is not some sad assembly of grizzled horsemen and desperate punters, hoping to somehow squeeze a dollar out of a declining sport. This is a gathering of families and friends, out to enjoy a day at the races. Blankets and lawn chairs fill the picnic grounds. Small children cavort while older ones beg their parents to bet on the gray filly because she looks so pretty or the chestnut with the funny sounding name. A father laughs and says to his daughter, “I think that’s a good system.” Many of the fans in the picnic grounds will not even lay eyes on the track itself, content to enjoy the pleasant day among friends, see the horses in the paddock, place their wagers at one of the countless betting windows scattered across the property, and watch the races on banks of televisions arrayed within easy eyeshot.

Whether in the picnic area, grandstand, or clubhouse, all in the crowd let loose a roar of delight and amazement when in the very first race of the thirteen on the card, 50-1 long shot Pretty Boy Freud is first across the finish line. For his handful of lucky backers, Pretty Boy Freud pays $102.50 on a $2 bet to win.

Through the afternoon a double sense of anticipation builds, for in addition to the Travers as the day’s penultimate race, today’s card also features the return of Uncle Mo one race earlier. The undefeated 2-year old champion in 2010, Uncle Mo was the early favorite for the Triple Crown before being diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal liver disease. After months of treatment he was returned to trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn in mid-July, and today will enter a starting gate for the first time in nearly five months.

Despite his long period of inactivity, the crowd sends Uncle Mo off as the even money favorite in the seven furlong 11th race. The eight horse field breaks from the gate at the far end of the back stretch. As they race down that straightaway the fast-closing favorite sits comfortably in fourth. The horses swing through the far turn and as they come to the head of the stretch Uncle Mo accelerates and pulls into the lead. With an eighth of a mile to go it looks for a moment like he will put the rest of the field away. But then on the far outside comes Caleb’s Posse. The most heavily raced horse in the field with thirteen lifetime starts, Caleb’s Posse gains ground on Uncle Mo with each stride. For the first time today the fans in the grandstand and clubhouse rise to their feet as the two contenders gallop past. In his final stride at the finish line, the underdog puts a nose in front of the favorite, even as the roars of the patrons echo across the grounds.

The big crowd will rise as one once again less than thirty minutes later, when the ten horses racing in the 142nd Travers Stakes make the turn for home. The strong field features Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont winner Ruler On Ice, west coast star Coil, and local favorite Stay Thirsty, who ran second in the Belmont and who has two wins and a second in three lifetime races at Saratoga. One of those wins was at this year’s Jim Dandy, the Grade II Stakes race that highlights the opening week of the track’s schedule.

Breaking from the #9 post as the 5-2 favorite, Stay Thirsty moves to an early lead as the horses race by the clubhouse. Jockey Javier Castellano eases his horse back, allowing the early speed horses to set the pace down the back stretch. Finally on the far turn Castellano calls upon his mount to move and Stay Thirsty responds, moving to the front and winning easily, to the delight of many in the crowd.

There is one race remaining on the card, but some afternoon thunderstorms are popping up just south of us, and rain clouds marking the first advance of massive Hurricane Irene are moving in. Having flown in, we still need to fly out, and so we head for the exit even as 43,000 happy race fans loudly salute the winner of the 2011 Travers.

Back at the airport, the student pilot readies the Cessna while the instructor checks the weather. The student gets us airborne, but as we turn the plane east and climb toward the clouds, it is apparent that we will be flying home under instrument rules. The student relinquishes the controls, and my old friend takes over. Given discretion by air traffic control to move between 7,000 and 8,000 feet as needed, he guides the little plane home, pointing it through gaps in the clouds like a jockey guiding his mount between horses as he makes his move on the far turn. His flying is masterful, and despite all the weather that we can see out the windows, the trip is remarkably smooth. As dusk gives way to nightfall we coast down the glide path to a gentle landing in Concord. The Cessna is pushed back into its hangar just as the first rain drops fall. Using the most modern means of travel, we’ve seen a grand old sport as it once was throughout the land. At historic old Saratoga, racing is still in its heyday.

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