Many fans love Oklahoma track’s morning workouts

“It’s fascinating to see the horses this close up," Clara Lipson says of morning workouts at Saratog
Track fans love the intimacy of workouts at the Oklahoma track.
Track fans love the intimacy of workouts at the Oklahoma track.

Seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, and shades of gray colored the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga Race Course.

Rain sprinkled and stopped, there was a cool breeze in the air. But the day would improve: Light blue was the promise, and clear skies were visible in the north and east.

Thoroughbreds on the track didn’t care about the early gloom. They were in comfortable gallop or full sprint, charging and snorting as exercise riders put them through dawn routines.

Clara Lipson had a spot at the rail. The show at the Oklahoma is one of her favorite parts about Saratoga.

“To me, this is the most exciting part of the scene,” said Lipson, who lives in Manhattan. “It’s fascinating to see the horses this close up. You can hear them breathing, you can see them sweating. It’s fascinating to see how they prepare them for racing. Today, I learned the ones who are running alongside other horses are the ones that are in training.”

Track fans refer to the Oklahoma as the backstretch. Lipson prefers to call it the backstage.

“You see the horses being washed, being fed,” she said. “I think it’s fantastic. I love this place.”

Aerial view

The New York Racing Association would love for other people to love the “backstage.” The Whitney Viewing Stand, a two-story wooden structure that gives people an aerial view of the track, opened in 2013. Other people will find spots near the rail, and watch horses make their moves. Riders often jog their mounts near the outside rail, and the men and women in the saddles often nod to the visitors. Children claim horses will do the same thing.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito understands people like Clara.

“I think it’s great, it’s like practice,” he said. “A lot of people like to watch practice, they go to Giants camp, stuff like that. They get closer to the sport, closer to the game. It’s nice for the fans, especially if they’ve got families, kids. It’s the country atmosphere.”

Alan Reinhardt was standing with Lipson. He likes the morning works because the star system is not in play.

“The beauty of the Oklahoma track is you can’t tell the million dollar horses from the $10,000 claimers,” he said. “They all look the same, they’re treated the same, they act the same, and I love that. You can’t identify which one is the champion and which one of the ordinary plugging horse.”

People watching

Longtime Saratoga fans Ed Haynes and Charlie Lizotte were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, and had spots on the Whitney stand.

“It’s just to watch these beautiful animals, they’re awesome,” said Haynes, who lives in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. “And to watch the people who are working them, exercising them. Sometimes, we get to see somebody like Bill Parcells sitting in a golf cart.”

Lizotte likes to watch. And listen

“Every so often you’ll see trainers up here or down by the rail and you listen to them, you know what they’re doing,” said Lizotte, who lives in Blackstone, Massachusetts. “You’d see Allen Jerkens; he passed away earlier this year. He’d be over there and if you asked him a question — he was such a gentleman — he’d take time out and answer your question. He was a Hall of Famer, one of the best who ever lived.”

Trainer Leo O’Brien was on the rail.

“Such great weather, such great people,” he said. “People can get very close to the horses, they’re just jogging right by you. You never get that anywhere else.”

Like Jerkens, O’Brien will answer fan questions. Does he still mix a little beer in his horses’ feed? The answer was no.

“They were becoming alcoholics, so I had to stop,” he said.

So there is humor in the morning. But there is occasionally drama, too.

Scary and sad moment

On this Saturday, Kathy’s Reward fractures a front cannon bone while breezing on the track, just after the finish pole. The thoroughbred throws the rider, April Boag.

In seconds, the Oklahoma’s sirens are on and yellow emergency lights attached to track poles are lit. Handlers run onto the thick dirt to help both horse and rider; an equine ambulance is on the way.

Boag is not seriously injured, and is quickly on her feet. “You’re all right; you’re sure?” asks trainer Gary Contessa, who is on the track and calms his horse. “Just go. We’ve got this.”

The rider is more concerned with her mount. The injury means the thoroughbred must be euthanized on the track.

After a short delay, horses and riders return to the track. The day continues.

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