Frank Myers, of Colonie, stood in the last row in the last section of the grandstand at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s tradition,” Myers said, explaining his spot above the top of the stretch for the 144th running of the Travers Stakes. “I think I won here once.”
He didn’t win a second time. Longshot Will Take Charge surprised the crowd of 47,597 by besting favorites Verrazano, Palace Malice and Orb and edging fellow longshot Moreno.
“Maybe next year,” Myers said, disappearing into the crowd.
Like Myers, people observed tradition at the race course on a comfortable summer day that offered plenty of sun, zero humidity, temperatures in the 70s and a 14-race card. All of the Saratoga accessories — shorts, gowns, oversized hats, coolers, snacks, beer and cigars — were on display.
The Travers Day on-track handle was $9.67 million, up from $8.7 million in 2012. The total handle was $41.3 million, up 13 percent from the $36.5 million in pari-mutuel tickets purchased in 2012.
Anthony Amico, 34, of Cumberland, Maine, was happy to be a face in the crowd. He stood close to the rail for several races and carried his blond-haired, 2-year-old son, Cameron, on his shoulders.
“We’re here to see the whole day,” Amico said. “Any time we get a chance to get out here and see the races, we try to get right out in front. That it’s a beautiful day really helps the cause.”
Travers Day is often a mix of high spirits and high concepts. In the latter category Saturday, Michael Freeze and his friends dressed as jockeys and looked authentic with sleeve numbers, goggles, caps and borrowed silks.
“We’re in the 15th race, which is the Clydesdale race,” joked Freeze, 46, of Havertown, Pa. “It’s not in the program; we’re actually advising people not to bet on us. They’d be throwing away their money.”
People around the race course cheered the husky jockeys. Freeze wore a large blue triangle on his white tunic and completed his costume with white capri pants, calf-high boots and a yellow cap. Pals Lance Cristiano, 45, of Drexel Hill, Pa., and Jack McGuire, 33, of Mullica Hill, N.J., wore white and blue and yellow and royal blue ensembles, respectively.
“It took us 20 minutes to get in the gate,” Freeze said. “People wanted pictures. We just want to make people smile.”
The guys were part of a larger Pennsylvania expedition. Ron Labenski, of Deptford, said he and his brothers and friends come to the Travers every summer to honor the memory of his father, longtime Saratoga fan Chuck Labenski, who died in 2002.
Ron Labenski had no problem with the looks and laughs his friends received.
“We love it,” he said. “They’re the life of the party.”
Brian McQuillan, 22, a senior at Skidmore College, was also the life of the party. He entertained friends from Skidmore by wearing an oversized horse mask that covered his head.
Like the jockeys, McQuillan posed for pictures. Unlike the jockeys, his gimmick was uncomfortable.
“But it’s a lot of fun,” said McQuillan, who lives in Limerick, Pa. “It makes you feel like you’re in the race a little bit.”
Peter Relyea, 59, of Ballston Spa, also had a surreal scheme: He collected ugly ties from his neighbors — polyester plaids, patterns and stripes in garish maroons, greens and browns — hung them on a 15-peg board and advertised “lucky” ties for $1 a race.
“I’m always looking for a lucky thing,” Relyea said. “It’s a good time, that’s all. It’s just for fun.”
By the fourth race, Relyea had rented two ties to friends in his Travers party. One of them, Sean Spain, 44, of Valatie, wore a white tie decorated with green Christmas trees and watched his horse, Do I Amuse You, win at 13-1.
“My first win today,” said Spain, happy about a fashion statement — and a $28.20 payoff.
Katie Bubnack of Saratoga Springs was also in good humor; she’s been celebrating her August birthday at the race course since 2007. On Saturday, Bubnack turned 29 and began the morning with exercise — sprinting for a picnic table at 7 a.m. As usual, people scrambled for seats and spots like Bavarians running from Frankenstein’s monster.
“It was the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of people,” said Bubnack, who wore a black dress and a black bow in her hair, decorated with slender black and white feathers. “We got some of the last tables. I think it’s the best race of the day.”
Friends from New York City, Syracuse and Long Island gathered at Bubnack’s tables in the backyard, decorated with “Happy Birthday” balloons.
“Next year, it’s going to be my 30th birthday and my bachelorette party, so we’re already looking forward to next year,” Bubnack said.
Off the green
Golf great Arnold Palmer celebrated his first trip to the race course, spending time with friends in a front-row box.
“I love it,” said Palmer, 83. “I don’t know where I’ve been all my life. I should have been here.”
Palmer knows horses.
“I’m a big cowboy,” he said. “I had about 48 quarterhorses that I showed and did shows with.”
Palmer handicapped races by picking names. He also offered names to watch in golf.
“There are a lot of young people coming along that are going to be good,” he said. “I’ve got two grandsons who are both pretty good players. One is Sam Saunders. The other is just entering college, Will Wears.”
Massachusetts residents Toren McGovern, Tim Daly and Bo Sherman also had a box, of sorts. The guys from Melrose camped on a four-step white platform just in front of the grandstand, above the cement apron. They rented a multicolored umbrella for $10 and stayed out of the sun.
“This was supposed to be a table,” said Daly, directing friendly criticism to Sherman.
“This is plan B,” Sherman answered.
It sounded like any plan would have worked on Travers Day.
“We’ve all turned 50,” Daly said. “This is our weekend away.”
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