words & pictures by NICOLLE NEULIST
I wasn’t expecting people to apologize for the day when I made my maiden voyage to Saratoga, but “I’m sorry” abounded. Folks apologized that it was cold, overcast, that I wouldn’t get to see the Sun that made it the Spa they knew and loved.
No one needed to apologize; after all, for me, it was a perfect day to go. Temperatures in the mid-sixties all day meant I could enjoy a day at the track without heat exhaustion. The Sun in hiding meant I wouldn’t end the day burned. And, the rain that had just tapered off midday meant that I got to play a sloppy track without worrying whether rain would ruin my camera.
With Saratoga having been built up in my head as this holy grail of horse racing, I expected there to be a certain distance between the sport’s stars and the curious masses. Yet? The closeness that Saratoga allows the average fan to the upper echelon of the sport was clear as soon as we parked the car. I was used to needing some kind of credential or license to get anywhere near a training track or a barn, yet our (free!) public parking spot was nestled right between Bruce Levine’s barn and the Oklahoma training track (see photo above). A tractor drove past as we walked toward the racetrack. No wonder Twitter abounds with up-close pictures of horses at Saratoga all summer: anyone who wants to can enjoy the backside!
That openness carried over to the front side, too.
“Who says the rail’s gold, Johnny?” A thirtysomething with a can of Miller Lite in his right hand asked right within earshot of Racing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez as he returned to the jockey’s room. A few minutes before, Velazquez had booted home Sugar Queen in an allowance, having run a few paths off the rail throughout. Velazquez nodded politely at the loud spectator as he passed along a designated jockey path that was marked only by paint on the concrete, not by a fence or a velvet rope.
Half an hour before, a throng of people had gathered around a bank of screens in the clubhouse. Christophe Clement stood in the front of that group, watching his first-time starter A Change of Heart warm up. Respectful gamblers let him stand up front to watch in as much peace as you can find in a racetrack common area on a race day. But, they had no qualms about crowding behind to urge on the horses they had played at Delaware, Finger Lakes, Parx, and ThistleDown.
For this being racing’s hallowed ground, the movers and shakers weren’t isolated in rarefied air.
As befits a racetrack where top-class racing is a way of life, there’s a stakes race every day of the Saratoga meet. This day’s feature, the only race all day that stayed on the grass, was the Caress Stakes, a filly and mare turf sprint. Along the paddock rail, a woman who had driven in from Michigan for her yearly pilgrimage to the Spa pointed to a horse across the paddock who had caught her eye, and asked who she was. “Carolina Shag,” I answered. The West Virginia-bred came into the Caress off an allowance win at Laurel in June, her first race off a layoff of almost two years. It was a promising restart to the Susan Cooney trainee’s racing career, but a far cry from facing some of the best American female turf sprinters not named Lady Aurelia.
Favored Miss Ella, who won a rained-off edition of the Caress last year, made a last-to-first run to repeat. She outkicked the second betting choice, Fair Point. Hopefully the woman in the paddock played Carolina Shag to show, or on a trifecta ticket — at 42/1, the longest shot on the board by far, she stayed on for third.
Then again, the stars of the day went beyond the human and equine faces atop the graded stakes standings. Travelling to tracks outside my home circuit means I get to see horses I had only previously known via social media. Sometimes, a single image is enough to make someone a fan of a horse — and that happened in October of 2014, when someone captured Kate Is a Ten jumping a shadow on her way to victory at Belmont Park. I have followed her ever since, and finally got to see her in person that wet Monday at Saratoga. Alas, she jumped no shadows, and tasted no victory. But even in mud-splattered defeat, it was a joy to finally see Kate Is a Ten in person.
Leaving Saratoga, that feeling of being close to horse racing pervaded all of my memories of the day. From the barns and the training track being the first things I saw, to standing along the rail of the racetrack or the paddock, to seeing top-flight trainers sharing TV screens with rank-and-file gamblers? I had expected a day at the Spa to be like watching a glorious exhibition. Instead, I found a place that immersed all comers in the experience, a place where no one was a mere spectator.
When Nicolle Neulist is not traveling to racetracks, she’s calling charts for Equibase at Arlington International Race Course. Follow her on Twitter @Rogueclown