Voss: Twelve Things About Saratoga That Warm My Heart

It is increasingly difficult, if you are an investigative journalist, to find moments of solace in this sport. The last few years have been a parade of what’s overtly going wrong in racing, sometimes right in the middle of moments that should be the very best of us – like the 2021 Kentucky Derby or the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It becomes all the more important then, to remember what brought you to horse racing and what keeps you in. For me, the annual summer sojourn I’m lucky enough to take to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.,  each August contains a lot of the things that warm my already-cold, already-hardened reporter’s heart. In case they also warm yours, here are a few of my favorites:

  • The children who line the jockey walk between the winner’s circle and the jockeys’ quarters, shyly asking for autographs and pictures. There is no bigger smile at the track than a kid who has just met a super hero, and for some of them it’s clear jockeys are pretty close. The riders demonstrate incredible patience for what must feel like a never-ending parade of young fans, even as they have to hurry back to change for their next ride.
  • The hush of the people who gather along the rail at the Oklahoma Training Track for turf works, peering through binoculars. They’re almost silent as the horses come by to watch their strides more closely, in very much the same way I turn down the car radio when I’m trying to read a road sign. But in their attention there is also reverence.
  • The toll of the bell to let race patrons know the horses are in the paddock – because at this track, at this meet, almost everybody knows what the paddock is and interested in knowing that the horses are entering it.
  • The family who assembled an elaborate set-up which included color-coordinated table cloths, balloons a gift table and a homemade spread of endless food and a decorated cake for someone’s birthday in the Backyard – making it appear as though it was their own backyard on a Saturday afternoon. In a way, I suppose it was.
  • Morning barn rounds with longtime Albany Times-Union contributor Tim Wilkin. Tim has been in the business for longer than I’ve been alive (sorry, Tim) and he is of the old breed of New York turfwriter. They’re a serious bunch with an air of ‘been there, done that’ because they have. Mornings with Tim involve trips to the top trainers’ barns and there is work, yes, as he conducts interviews, runs down news tips, plots out his content for the day. But when he’s done, he has a pocket full of peppermints and he visits his favorite horse in the shed row. Often times it’s a graded stakes horse, but sometimes it’s a more anonymous competitor he has taken a shine to. He’ll feed the horse a candy and smile at them. Swiss Skydiver is his favorite right now. “Isn’t she amazing?” he’ll say.
  • Ken McPeek assistant Francis Chiumiento, who recalled letting a young girl and her family in to visit Swiss Skydiver, not knowing until later the child had just beaten cancer and he had made her birthday extra special.
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  • Late mornings on Clare Court, which is a series of jogging paths underneath huge pine trees behind the chute of the main track. The light comes in golden and dramatic, and horses take time over their work. They seem to take a deep breath back there, looping through figure eights or strengthening through their first canters off a lay-up. Ponies nibble the grass. The backstretch tour tram stops by, and a carefully-chosen Thoroughbred ambassador greets the families calmly as they ooh and aah and snap his picture.
  • The ponies who stand like generals overlooking a battle as the gates thunder open, as field after field scampers by, unfazed by the water truck or the harrow.
  • The sounds of Reggie’s Red Hot Feet Warmers, the swing band whose horn and clarinet sing out through the front gates. Nothing is quite so bad after you’ve heard them play I’ll See You In My Dreams or I Double Dare You or All Of Me.
  • Barn dogs, who really believe they’re assistant training. Barn cats, who are spoiled beyond belief and really believe they deserve it. Barn goats who care for no one and nothing.
  • Watching the races from the roof, where you can see everything perfectly and hear a perfect mix of announcer John Imbriale, the conversations and cheers from the apron, and the jockeys calling to their mounts in the stretch.
  • The track tradition of blaring New York State Of Mind through the loudspeakers at the end of the card. I am not much for Billy Joel, and the song really doesn’t have a lot to do with Saratoga Springs, but it’s become a sad, dramatic, strange goodbye at the end of the last race card of my trip. The world is an uncertain place, but tomorrow they’ll be doing this same thing, in this same place, just like they have for years. And if I’m very lucky, I’ll be here to see it all over again next summer.

The post Voss: Twelve Things About Saratoga That Warm My Heart appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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