SARATOGA SPRINGS The racing was great.
That’s a given.
There were moments that we’ll cherish, like the Jimmy Jerkens Travers exacta, Wise Dan’s incredible comeback and track announcer Tom Durkin’s retirement.
Jockey Legends Day during Hall of Fame weekend, to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund, was a terrific idea.
The chants and cheers for Durkin’s deeply heartfelt and moving speech in the Saratoga Race Course winner’s circle on Sunday will go down as one of my all-time favorite scenes at my favorite place on the planet.
It was as loud and genuine an exchange as you’ll see between fans and an outgoing legend.
Those boos for New York Racing Association president and CEO Chris Kay were pretty loud, too, though.
He laughed it off (because, really, what else could he do?), but I thought it was a clear indication that, no matter how eternally popular this place is and no matter how relentlessly Kay drones on about “enhanced guest experience,”there’s some discontent out there.
That’s what happens when you raise prices all over the map, from admission to programs to parking. That’s certainly NYRA’s prerogative in these trying times, especially when Kay’s goal is to increase revenue and wean the three NYRA tracks off the Aqueduct slots revenue that they’re legally entitled to.
Besides the price increases, the boos for Kay on Sunday tell me that Saratoga fans simply don’t believe that he’s one of them.
On a personal note, I cringe every time someone tries to tell me I’m a “guest” at a venue at which you have to pay to get in and then pay some more and more.
Pay willingly, yes, but “guest” sounds too corporate-speaky and assigns a passive role to patrons at the mercy of an engineered “experience”. Blech.
This isn’t DisneyWorld, it’s a racetrack.
A racetrack that is incredibly family-friendly, meticulously maintained and astonishingly clean as a whistle despite the Herculean task of getting ready for its closeup six days a week. But a racetrack.
I don’t consider myself a guest on my Monday days off at my racetrack. I’m a fan. I’m a bettor.
On a much more serious note, a black eye on the meet was the number of equine fatalities that occurred in races at Saratoga or during training at Saratoga and Belmont Park.
There were 14 deaths, eight of which were racing-related, three during training in Saratoga and three on the Belmont training track.
The most recent fatality occurred last Friday, when the 2-year-old filly Divine Guidance was euthanized two days after being injured during a ninth-place finish in her career debut last Wednesday.
The New York State Gaming Commission issued a statement last Friday vowing to investigate all the deaths and come up with more measures to keep thoroughbreds safe.
But no matter what they do, it won’t change the fact that 2014 matched the highest number of racing fatalities since the state initiated its equine injury database in 2009.
I’m not bringing this up now to be a complete Debbie Downer, but it is necessary to close the books on our Gazette story that ran on Saturday by updating with the Divine Guidance death.
Overall, it was a tremendous meet. I’m not talking about the NYRA metrics, attendance, handle, etc., which I’ll look at in more detail when I see that stuff eventually.
I’m talking about the real stars, the horses and the jockeys. And Durkin.
This is a job, but it doesn’t seem like one when it asks you to watch two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, one of the greatest horses I’ve seen since coming to this place for the first time in 1987.
It doesn’t seem like a job when trainer Jimmy Jerkens wins the Travers with V.E. Day by a nose over his other horse, Wicked Strong, and minutes later, you’re on the phone with his father, Allen, talking about Onion beating Secretariat.
It doesn’t seem like a job when you eat trainer Eric Guillot’s jambalaya on the eve of Moreno’s Whitney win. Nor when jockey Paco Lopez wins the first Grade I of his career, on Itsmyluckyday over Moreno in a roughhouse Woodward, then kneels down to high-five his tiny little son.
And it doesn’t seem like a job when owner Ed Stanco feeds Princess of Sylmar carrot slices, then caresses her cheek as she puts her head over his shoulder to check a shirt pocket for more … the morning after she got trounced by Close Hatches in the Personal Ensign.
Like I said. The racing was great.