Winter in Saratoga Springs, New York, is difficult. Spring has finally arrived, and though it’s rainier than we’d like, it’s vastly preferable to the feet of snow that have only recently melted away. That said, it’s easy to understand how eagerly we Saratogians await the first signs of the heady days of the upcoming meet at Saratoga Race Course. For me, this happens in three phases: 1. the opening of the Oklahoma training track; 2. the beginning of the meets at Keeneland and Belmont; and 3. the Triple Crown season.
Phase 1 happened so quickly I almost missed it. It generally begins with the appearance of horse vans from Brook Ledge and Sallee making their way north on I-87. It’s right around this time that Saratoga residents start coming out to enjoy the balmy weather, and as the vans wind their way through the streets toward the Oklahoma track on Union Avenue, we crane our necks to attempt a glimpse of the four-legged summer visitors inside. Broadway starts to brighten with the vibrant colors of flower baskets and familiar faces of repeat seasonal residents begin to reappear all around town.
The start of phase 2 is always more subtle. One by one the trainers, jockeys, and horses in my Equibase virtual stable begin migrating away from the tracks and training centers in the far south and I am notified of their workouts and races at first at Keeneland, then at Belmont. Pretty soon, Louisiana and Florida disappear altogether and the thrill of racing moves steadily closer to my backyard. Simultaneously, Oklahoma continues to fill its stalls and the bustle of Saratoga builds exponentially.
My favorite of these stages is always phase 3. Not too much of a surprise, I guess; it is the most exciting, racing-wise. Whether hosting or attending Triple Crown race celebrations, I’ve traditionally enjoyed the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in fairly casual style. This year was different. After attending my first Breeders’ Cup weekend at Churchill Downs last November, I decided to view the 2011 Derby live in Louisville. I paid extra attention to the Derby prep races, followed the contenders and read every bit of news and all the updates I could download, re-tweet, or otherwise get my hands on. By the time I arrived in the Bluegrass I was ready. Oaks/Derby weekend was all that I anticipated, plus some pleasant surprises. I greeted Sunday, May 8, completely spent, my ostrich feather fascinator only slightly worse for the wear (and the light rain).
Returning to Saratoga, it was obvious that we are almost ready to race. The traffic on Union, Nelson, and East Avenues is a bit more animated, but not nearly as bad as it will be soon; and yes, the parking downtown is beginning to show the early signs of summer congestion. But Broadway is livelier, the backstretch is booming, and the anticipation for post-time is palpable. All good signs that some of summer’s best racing is almost here. Let the countdown begin.