Saratoga County

Pharoah’s workout draws early morning crowd

A rare, massive morning crowd greeted the regally named champion American Pharoah during a brief exe
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah warms up in front of thousands on the morning before the Travers Stakes on Friday, August 28, 2015.
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah warms up in front of thousands on the morning before the Travers Stakes on Friday, August 28, 2015.

Cameron Porter was half asleep — but he kept his mount Friday morning at Saratoga Race Course.

The latter was Greg Porter, who had given his 7-year-old son a spot on his shoulders near the race track’s rail. Although Cameron was still waking up, he wasn’t going to miss a chance to see American Pharoah up close. Neither was Dad.

“I wasn’t even alive the last time a Triple Crown winner was here,” said Greg Porter, who lives in Queensbury. “It might not happen again.”

About 15,000 people agreed. That’s why a rare, massive morning crowd greeted the regally named thoroughbred and Triple Crown champ during a brief exercise session on the main track.

A bigger audience will be at Saratoga today, to watch American Pharoah try to add the Travers Stakes to his resume. The New York Racing Association expects 50,000 and no more — an attendance limit was announced earlier this month.

Post time for today’s feature race is 5:46 p.m.

On Friday, gates opened at 7 a.m. While the morning rush is usually a sprint for picnic tables in the backyard, Pharoah fans hustled for prime clubhouse box seats near the finish line. Marc and Debbie Ducharme of Lynn, Massachusetts, landed in a third-row box, just above the finish line.

“They were all filled in five minutes,” Marc Ducharme said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in 30 years. The place looked more like a racing day on a Monday or a Wednesday.”

Traffic was snarled on streets close to the race course by 7:15 a.m. Officials from NYRA closed the main parking lot off Union Avenue, the “front lawn” of the course, which was packed with cars. Inside, every clubhouse and grandstand section close to the finish line was filled.

The Pharoah show started at about 8:30 a.m., when replays of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes were shown on race course televisions. A winner’s circle interview with Bob Baffert, American Pharoah’s trainer, followed.

A few minutes passed and at 8:50, the horse entered the track near the start of the clubhouse turn. Track announcer Larry Collmus excited the crowd with his greeting, “American Pharoah, welcome to the greatest race track in the world!”

American Pharoah and usual escort Smokey the pony walked down the track to the winner’s circle and, minutes later, the champion — with exercise rider Jorge Alvarez up — took a gallop around the track. People who stood three and four deep near the rail — many dressed in parkas and long-sleeve shirts for the 70-degree morning — cheered and took cellphone photos and videos. Cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee had replaced cans of Coors and Budweiser traditionally seen during the afternoon.

The whole scene was over by 8:58.

“It’s our first time here, even though we live in the area,” said Rob LaMora of Clifton Park, on Pharoah watch with his family. “We wanted to see if we could get a glimpse of a Triple Crown winner.”

Lance Sprinkle of Saratoga Springs was part of a four-family entourage that included 10 kids. Because nobody had tickets for today’s card, Sprinkle and pals thought the early visit represented the best chance to see Pharoah up close. “And it’s kind of an electric atmosphere for 8 o’clock in the morning,” Sprinkle said.

Long lines for Saratoga’s breakfast were reported. Stephen Travers, NYRA’s senior director for hospitality and guest services, said about 1,500 people showed up for the buffet. Nobody was rushed; people were expected to take their time with bacon and eggs, and keep their tables in both the “Porch” and “At the Rail” sections.

“We don’t want anybody to give up their tables. Let everybody stay,” Travers said. “We sat everybody who was in line. No one didn’t get seated. We don’t expect to turn over tables today. We expect everybody to stay there all morning.”

Bryan Wilber of Scottsdale, Arizona, a Saratoga Springs native, didn’t want breakfast. He just wanted to see the horse.

“When’s the last time you had a chance to see a Triple Crown winner?” he asked. “It’s a day of history for Saratoga Springs — 3,000 miles and it was worth it.”

Some people said they had taken the day off from work, others said they were just going in late. Most didn’t stick around — there was a mass exodus from Pharoah shortly after 9 a.m.

“It was worth it,” said Heather Madigan of Saratoga Springs, who brought her children, Harper, 10, and Chet, 6, to see the Travers favorite. “You could feel the energy of that horse. And this is our city. This could be history. We had to come and see him.”

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