Former track announcer Tom Durkin used to punctuate his daily greeting to Saratoga Race Course fans with a soothing reminder that they were “here, at the … Spaahhh.”
Next Thursday, a few dozen of those fans — out of the thousands who have made it an annual pilgrimage to be on track for opening day of the meet — will instead be “here, at the …
With no spectators allowed on the grounds at Saratoga this season because of COVID-19 restrictions, fans will have to get creative if they want to enjoy some level of Spa-like experience beyond slumping back into the couch cushions and watching it on TV or online.
There’s been speculation for months that an army of folding chairs and coolers will be lined up on the sidewalks along the fence on Union and Nelson avenues in Saratoga Springs to gain whatever glimpse of a live race is available.
Mark Struffolino took this enterprise to a higher level: Can’t go to the track, build a piece of it in your own backyard on Robinwood Avenue.
Yeah. He went there.
And became a social media hero in the process.
It may not reach the proportions of the cornfield ballpark in “Field of Dreams,” but the Ray Kinsella of Rotterdam now has a freshly constructed 12-foot-high single-post TV kiosk modeled after the classic look of the Saratoga Race Course picnic area, complete with rafter beams, red-and-white triangular roof panels and a flat screen TV.
There’s also a picnic table — how could there not be? — and an accompanying red-and-white quarter pole topped by a gold ball to bring the whole scene together. Talk about a home Spa treatment.
The 48-year-old Struffolino and his buddies put the finishing touches on it Friday afternoon, and when the 152nd meet kicks off on Thursday, they’ll be comfortably camped in front of the racing action like they always are on opening day. It just won’t be at their beloved Saratoga.
“A couple of them thought I was nuts when I started it, but, you know …” Struffolino said with a laugh.
If Struffolino’s project came with a scrambling sense of urgency as opening day approached — fans have been bracing for a no-spectator restriction on Saratoga since the pandemic gained prominence in March — Don Dybas of Latham had this idea a few years ago, just on principle.
He finished his backyard bar patio in 2014 with a replica of the Saratoga clubhouse entrance and will also be in a position to host friends with the next best thing for those who will see their tradition trampled by the pandemic.
His trumpet-playing 13-year-old son, Stephen, was even prepared to perform the “Call to the Post” before the first race, but, alas, broke his finger this week and will be, as his father texted, “a late scratch.”
“We invited our cigar store guys, so I’ll probably have 6-10 people,” said the 54-year-old Amsterdam native. “We’ll try to keep it safe and keep it comfortable for everybody. I’ve got a pretty big patio so people can spread out and not feel like they’re being crammed in or anything.
“We were looking for a theme, and I thought there would be nothing better than making it look like Saratoga. It’s been a long tradition with my family, my grandfather and brothers.”
Struffolino, a Mont Pleasant High graduate who works as a systems analyst at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, said he hasn’t missed many opening days over the last 25 years.
He came up with the idea of the Spa facsimile about three months ago and wanted to surprise his friends with it on opening day, with one problem: he needed one of them, Kurt Williams of Hillcrest Home Improvements, to actually build it.
“I said, ‘I have to do something here,'” Struffolino said. “That was kind of the game plan, to get this thing rolling, and I didn’t really know how to do it.
“He thought I was nuts. He thought it couldn’t be done. The one post — because I was going to do it with a 4-by-4 — he doubted it could be done because the top is so much weight. The top’s probably 300 pounds. He’s like, ‘There’s no way we can do this’
“We hashed it out, I had to get a building permit from the town and everything. We’ve got power out there and everything, wireless DirecTV …”
It’s a measure of how badly fans will miss being at the track that a photo of the unfinished product posted on Twitter by Struffolino’s friend Fred (@AFREDIAM) blew up on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, @AFREDIAM was tweeting: “100k views and I have 70 followers, LET US IN @TheNYRA @NYGovCuomo we will wear masks!!!!! A summer without Saratoga is like a baby without diapers!!!!!”
Replies to his initial tweet with the photo include:
“I’m either going to build one myself, or get up at 2am on Travers Day to put my tablecloth in this dude’s backyard.”
“Omg this is the best thing ever.”
And the well-traveled GIF of Wayne and Garth bowing in “We’re not worthy!” supplication.
“I’m not even on Twitter that much,” Struffolino said. “He put it out there, ‘Look what my friend did’ … he has over 100,000 hits on this thing since four days ago. Four days.”
Dybas posted two photos of his bar on Twitter inviting trainer Chad Brown to stop over, after Brown, a Mechanicville native with rich family tradition at the Spa of his own, posted video this week of the empty clubhouse seats and expressed hope “like everyone else that spectators are allowed to this historic, magical place.”
The white-lattice facing under the roof of Dybas’ bar includes a green and gold replica of the rectangular “General Admissions” sign that greets fans to the track.
“I had conceptualized it from the start,” Dybas said. “I got the signs painted up in Ballston Spa. I think there’s actually an official Saratoga red color, believe it or not. I had a picture of the clubhouse entrance that I used, and I gave the sign maker that picture and he came as close as he could to matching the signs.
“I grew up in Amsterdam and my grandfather would take me up there. I think I learned to count to three by win, place and show. I think I’ve been going since I was 7 or 8 years old, and it’s passing the tradition along to my son. He loves it now.
“My brother and I usually go up on opening day and four or five times throughout the year. Just always had a great time. The thing I’ll miss the most is the people, seeing the same people every year.”
He and Struffolino will see a select few of the same people, but it’ll be in a makeshift manner within the limitations that so far have prohibited large public gatherings in New York state.
Saratoga drew over 1 million in paid admission for 39 days of racing last year.
This may not be heaven in 2020, but somehow people will find their piece of it.
“Folks are going to make do,” Dybas said. “We’re not going to miss out. I think we’ll celebrate on our individual parties. I think the bars will be hopping in Saratoga. They all have outside venues.
“We just have to be careful and be mindful of the people around you, and the bar owners are going to have to be respectful and not crowd too many people in.”
“Our one day a year is in the backyard, that’s why I wanted to make it as authentic as possible,” Struffolino said. “Usually 25-30 of us, all our buddies and people from the Elk’s Lodge and all over the place. We get there first thing in the morning, run and grab tables. Some of us are partial horse owners, and we’ve been doing it for 25 years.
“We figured why break the tradition now just because of the pandemic?”