A Seat in the Bleachers: Eagerly haunting the Spa

Neal McLaughlin was getting close to the stub of a $10 cigar that might’ve been one of Albert Pujols

Neal McLaughlin was getting close to the stub of a $10 cigar that might’ve been one of Albert Pujols’ bats in a previous life.

“I get ’em six dollars, bulk,” McLaughlin said through a grin and a puff of smoke. “My dental hygienist sister loves it.”

It’s 7:10 a.m.

Welcome to Saratoga Race Course. Again.

Neal’s brother, Kiaran, just chuckled and continued to watch the activity on the backstretch.

I asked Kiaran if he has enough ammo to repeat as the leading trainer at Saratoga, and without hesitation he soberly said, “No. I don’t.”

That’s how tough this place is, that a man backed by the full support of one of the most powerful and wealthy figures in the Middle East, Sheikh Hamdan of Dubai, can have feelings of inadequacy.

Things will get crazy here today, with open house and the circus acts and all that stuff, and then it will really get crazy on Wednesday, opening day.

This is just about my favorite place on the planet, and one of the privileges of being in the media is you can just show up in the morning and have the run of the place.

So I went to the track on Saturday just to wander around and soak it in a little before the season starts for the 141st time.

One of the best things about Sar­atoga is that, beyond the pretty geraniums and red-and-white striped awnings, there’s an undercurrent of ferocious competitiveness that is delicious to behold, even during the quiet times.

Even though the clubhouse, grandstand and backyard were deserted and in a state of pre-meet disarray, the horsemen are already here, preparing and plotting, making everything sharp.

I ran into trainer Dallas Stewart at the clocker stand on the Okla­homa training track across Union Avenue, and he gave his usual friendly greeting before hurrying back to his barn. Unbeknownst to me, Macho Again, Stewart’s big horse, owned in part by Roger and Joyce Locks of Saratoga Springs, had just zipped by at the end of a four-furlong workout in 49.44. He’ll run in the Grade I Whitney on Aug. 8.

If you’ve been here enough times, you can’t help but succumb to deja vu the first time you come back.

There isn’t a slab of bacon in existence that smells better than the glorious breeze that floats out of the Horse Haven kitchen every morning.

Listening to the banter of the exercise riders is a separate entertainment all to itself. “Pardon my French,” one said to some other riders. “I’m going to be saying that a lot around here.”

On the Oklahoma, a big white cowboy hat moved along the rail, unmistakably that of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.

I walked past Steve Asmussen’s barn, a picture of orderly bustle, and it seemed like 2008 again, when Curlin lived in the stall that now holds Rachel Alexandra.

There’s such a solidity here, even in difficult economic times, that’s hard to duplicate. Anything less than your best stuff just isn’t going to get it done.

Trainer Dominic Galluscio, as always, was easy to spot on his pony. Galluscio wore a lavender golf shirt and his leather chaps with the fringe.

One of the Oklahoma clockers kidded him about letting somebody else win around here, and Galluscio said with a tight smile, “I don’t know. They don’t run $7,500 claimers here. Though they might by the end of the meet.”

Categories: Sports

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