A Seat in the Bleachers: Saratoga’s charm not diminished by changes

Saratoga Race Course is still appealing, even if the renovated Jim Dandy bar is not.

“Hey, COACH!”

I was the only one at the Jim Dandy bar around 11:30 a.m. on Monday, until Louisville head coach Rick Pitino wandered in with about eight buddies from Lexington. Bartender Phonsey Lambert, the Sar­atoga Central Catholic baseball and football coach, and I were swapping Section II dirt when Phonsey spotted Pitino and his group and beckoned them forthwith.

“What the hell did they do to the place?” Pitino said as he walked over with arms spread wide.

Exactly. The bartenders and I had already covered this ground. This hallowed ground that somebody in charge decided needed a refurbishment, or whatever word you want to assign to the godawful reconfiguration and brightening (blech) of the Jim Dandy.

“I hate it,” I told Phonsey when I walked in, and he just solemnly shook his head. His co-worker said, “It’s not a bar anymore, it’s a beerstand.”

Thank God for the Paddock Bar, the 2010 addition adjacent to Saratoga Race Course’s clubhouse entrance. It’s called The Rail, but I don’t know anybody who uses that other than the NYRA press office. Any of their releases referring to The Rail are met with a “Huh?” By me, anyway.

Paddock. Bar.

Back at the Jim Dandy, the consensus holds that the changes are all for the bad. They ripped out the old square bar in the center, which I’m told was mahogany and was left outside for anyone to claim, but is now back in NYRA’s possession. Or something like that. The bar is now a straight counter at one end, with a wide shiny black bartop made out of some sort of faux-marble you can get at Home Depot. Or maybe it’s real marble. I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s shiny, cold and hard.

The remaining floorspace is now controlled by six square stand-up tables, no stools, which is fine. The PA was a little too loud.

But the worst, by far, is the lighting. Way, way, way too bright in there. They have big hanging ornamental lights, but that wasn’t enough, there are also lights recessed into the ceiling. At 11:30 a.m., I couldn’t escape the feeling that they’d just made last call.

Well, at least the company was excellent. I introduced myself to Pitino, realizing that there would be no way in hell he’d remember a conversation we had in the bowels of the Dayton Arena in March 2009. Siena had beaten Ohio State in double overtime the night before, one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever had the pleasure and priv­ilege of covering, and was getting ready to take on the Louisville Cardinals, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

But we talked horses that day. Pitino has come to Saratoga annually for over 30 years now, and in 2009, he had a Kentucky Derby hopeful named A.P. Cardinal, sired by his A.P. Valentine, who was seventh in the Derby, second in both the Preakness and Belmont and fourth in the Travers in 2001. A.P. Cardinal was running in the Lane’s End at Turfway Park that afternoon, went off at 14-1 and finished eighth.

The Saints fared a little better, although they also lost. Siena actually took a four-point lead with seven minutes left, prompting Pitino to call timeout. I’ll never forget the look on Terrence Williams’ face as he headed to the Louisville bench. It was the face of fear. But Williams responded like the true star he was and carried the Cardinals to a 79-72 win.

Back at the Jim Dandy, Pitino grac­iously included me in the sizeable round he was buying and told me the Cardinals are allowed an upcoming 10-day window to practice because they have some overseas games to play. “Which countries in Europe?” I asked. “No, the Bah­amas,” Pitino said. Ah, big-time college basketball.

He and his party left, and I was not far behind them, but not without upholding another personal Sar­atoga tradition, asking Phonsey to lay some Bob Sheppard on me. He does an uncanny impersonation of the late, great Yankees PA announcer.

“Now batting for [Cliff] Johnson, number 17, Gamble. Oscar Gamble. Number 17.”

“Now batting for [Fred] Stanley, number 46, Johnstone. Jay Johnstone. Number 46.”

Now batting at the Paddock Bar, number zilch, MacAdam. Mike MacAdam. Number zed.

The first person I ran into there was John “Jocko” DeBlasio. I wrote a fun story on the retired Schenec­tady firefighter in 2008 off a tip that there was this everyday Saratoga fan who bore a striking resemblance to trainer Steve Asmussen. Jocko and I cracked up all over again about how Gazette handicapper Mark Cusano was among the duped.

“ ‘Great job with Lady Tak in the Test,’ ” Jocko said, laughing.

Another one of my little trad­itions on my designated fun day each week at Saratoga is to walk out to the little picnic area way out at the top of the stretch to watch a race. Since I was getting crushed at the windows and Counterparty looked like a lock, making the fifth race (supposedly) unbettable, that was my cue.

It was nice and hot out there in that little corner tucked far, far away from the action, the squares of sod baked to brown, the patrons baked to bombed, as one woman observed.

The woman to the right of me on the rail proudly announced to her friends that she had bet $2 on the 4, Precious Soul. “They’re laughing at me,” she said. “When the 4 wins, you get the last laugh,” I said. “Thank you!” she said, calling for a high-five. “She’s bombed,” the woman to the left of me said. Not quite in a position to judge, I shrugged.

I love how into it the people on Saratoga’s Pluto are. But the other thing I love about the top of the stretch is the race itself. The view of the stretch makes it look more massive than from any other vantage point. It just goes on forever. The horses are tiny toys by the time they reach the finish. The sweeping spires of the grandstand look so pure and elegant as to be sand formations brushed into shape by ancient winds.

Even better is the sound. You can’t hear the race call, and you can’t hear the crowd. It’s quiet. And it’s all over quickly, but it stays with you. What you get is the gradual thump-thump buildup as the horses come off the turn, and you can hear the jockeys smooching and chirping. The word “staccato” was invented with the snap of a riding crop on a horse’s flank in mind. The sporadic short-burst firecrackers tell you something is happening out there, and about to happen.

And that event was 2-5 Counterparty being upset by 6-1 Precious Soul. Laughing, I tell you.

Back at the paddock bar, I found myself in the uncomfortable pos­ition of being solicited for handicapping advice. I ran into John Sabini, the chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, and he directed an acquaintance with no knowledge of thoroughbred betting my way, to help him put together a ticket for the last race. Yii-iikes.

This is the kind of betting day I was having: While chatting with West Point Thoroughbreds managing martner Terry Finley before the fourth race, my handicapping wizardry led to the conclusion that there was no way an Orien­tate, East Indies, was going to win at a mile and three-sixteenths. On the turf, no less.

“This kid can ride,” Finley said, as apprentice Irad Ortiz Jr. got East Indies to the front (clear sprinter pedigree, right?), and stayed there.

So I was getting destroyed at the windows and reluctant to even wager on the ninth, a Rubik’s cube if ever there was one. But, what the hell, it was blaze-of-glory time. I assembled a $1 four-horse exacta box ($12) and a $1 four-horse tri box ($24), which my new friend dutifully wrote down on a napkin. Except that he ratcheted his ticket into a considerably pricier level than was mine.

And this is why we love Saratoga, no matter how bad things get: the No. 13, Spa City Lover, insinuated herself and split our 1-2-3 triple to pay $442. Throw out the lucky 13, and we were looking at a huge score.

No problem. As always, I had a ball. If you’ve been coming year after year, Saratoga has a way of insinuating itself into your DNA. Like I said, it’s all over quickly, but it stays.

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