Saratoga Opens to Fans Hungry for Racing Tradition

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Some have been here since 6am, lining up in the drizzle, holding coolers, lawn chairs, and picnic baskets. Hundreds waited for the wrought-iron doors to open.

Suddenly, they set off at 7am! Moms and dads. Twenties and teenagers. They fell apart like hell, turning so well-trodden grass and dirt roads into a highway. They are all looking for a haven of paradise of their own.

Nothing says Saratoga Springs returns as enthusiastically as daily runs for picnic tables in the backyard of this historic racetrack. It was an all-out sprint against a splintered pile of wood whose choice (horsemen are the superstitious kind) could decide the fate of the afternoon’s betting fortunes.

Nirvana was found next to the paddock under an old leafy maple and a short walk from a bet window.

Eyeball thoroughbred horses up close? Check.

Avoid queues in betting windows? Check.

Want to cool off on boiling hot days? Check.

After their kingdom had been secured and their domination with a tablecloth, some made their way to the racetrack apron to watch the thoroughbreds pass through the fog at morning practice. Some waited for coffee and Daily Race Forms in their hotel rooms or rental homes. The others returned to their pillows.

This racetrack, this town is a place where tradition – no matter how bizarre – dictates the rhythm of the day.

Exactly 17 minutes before the posting time, you’re guaranteed to hear the echo of bells from around the winner, for example, a nod to when public address systems were in place, a salute to horsemen and horsemen as a reminder that a race is approaching.

Last summer, however, the bell rang but few were heard as the pandemic has locked down both horse players and horse lovers.

Enthusiasts are finally allowed to return to Spa, as it is known, once again rejoicing.

At Brook Tavern across the street, where handicaps and a lawn writer or two hang their chores, the bar is again full of babbling about bad hits and good bets. The tables are full and those who enter spill into the parking lot. The same goes for The Wishing Well, a family-run business in neighboring Wilton that is more than 50 years old.

“It’s great that people are coming back,” said Bob Lee, who owns both restaurants with his wife, Mary Alice.

At Springwater Bed & Breakfast, where employees wear T-shirts with the words “Sleep, Eat and Repeat”, summer rooms have been sold out since June. Leslie DiCarlo, the owner of the inn, starts at 5:30 am in the kitchen and finishes by late in the evening with her beloved staff – their adult children Matthew and Cristina.

Still, it’s worth the work most days, as it brings a grateful hug from guests with whom it has endured and socialized for decades.

“It’s out of control,” he said with a tired smile.

Unlike other sports, racing drivers are often part of the crowd and have a long walk from the racetrack to the backyard to the jockeys’ room. Children run after them, asking for autographs or riding glasses.

Before the pandemic, horse players, who were particularly grumpy when they lost, often took the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with the athlete’s riding. Not so much this summer. Even as the coronavirus doubles, there is a sense of relief, of liberation.

It seems that it is joy enough to be allowed to lose in person once again.

John F. Cox has been coming here since he was 2 years old from his native Lexington, Ky., for the Whitney Handicap and Fasig-Tipton annual sales. When he was 8 years old, his grandmother woke him up at 5:30 in the morning to see his favorite horse, the big Cigar.

Cox, director of public relations for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, wrote a poem after her last pilgrimage, after she disappeared last year. He simply called her “Saratoga”.

Let’s leave the last word to him in a place most of us have.

a passionate lover

And a sworn enemy.

I love to see it coming

I hate watching him go.

The pony wins and loses.

Money comes and goes…

… But mostly, it just goes.

Whether you’re dealing with a suit,

Or falling asleep with crusts,

We’re here for the same things, really

Often gets excited and laughs.

And when the party is over,

I’m going back to Bluegrass.

See you next year; next summer,

my beautiful friend and enemy

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