Chairs, chairs everywhere, and not a butt to sit.
They were stacked neatly, hundreds of them in rows, blocking a bank of windows that should have been conduits for the flow of betting dollars.
Interlocked piles of tables that should have been liberated weeks ago silently idled at the top of the stretch.
The grass in the backyard was, dare I say, lush, at least by Saratoga Race Course backyard standards.
A lovely breeze rustled the leaves, and in an off-kilter way, the fact that you could hear it was sort of … jarring.
Only because you shouldn’t have heard it.
The 152nd Saratoga Race Course meet opened on Thursday, a place and date that typically burst with the anticipation of thousands of horse racing fans, but was simply and mostly quiet this time.
Just … quiet.
Vast stretches of empty space.
Since March, there haven’t been many stories to tell without the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop, or worse. That’s just the way it is, and the racetrack finally experienced that in full bloom on Thursday, gorgeous flower beds lining walkways near the clubhouse entrance and gracing the paddock, with hardly anyone to appreciate them.
I’ve been covering this track since 1987, and over the course of that time you develop rhythms and customs that fill a cycle from even before opening day, like when the Oklahoma Training Track opens in mid-April, to the end of the meet on Labor Day.
We reported, as usual, on two stakes races on Thursday, the traditional Schuylerville and the aptly named Peter Pan in this Neverland without fans that you could never imagine ever, if you’d ever been here on one of my sparsely populated Degenerate Mondays, much less Travers Day with 50,000 roaring, sweaty, boisterous, merry souls.
By Friday, there will be some racehorse owners allowed on the apron to watch their prized possessions, as things loosened up with the state of New York at the last minute this week.
When that news broke, an image that popped in my head was the owner equivalent of the Running of the Picknickers, that Walmart Black Friday scene every Travers Day when they let the hordes in early — very early — to secure their picnic tables.
On Friday, I expect instead an Amble to the Apron, a casual stroll by monocled, watch-fobbed, top-hatted swells when the gates open. Don’t let me down, people.
After seeing one of the red guided tour trams with weeds growing around its tires on the backstretch on Tuesday, I promised myself to put a cap on the use of the word “forelorn” for the rest of the meet.
When I declared on Twitter that “This is the last straw” with a photo of the Big Red Spring blocked from use by a big wooden box covering the whole fountain, I was grateful to Joe Clancy of the Saratoga Special for replying, “That’s actually progress.” If you’ve ever tasted the water, you understand.
Yep, it’s possible to go overboard in glorifying the track, and in fact, not everyone is in love with the idea that NYRA even chose to hold the meet up here, in light of the pandemic and how there seemed to be a solid routine established at Belmont Park.
“It’ll be different without fans, but I thought we should’ve stayed downstate, anyway,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said Wednesday morning. “I hope it all works out for them, but I think it’s a big disregard for us, having to move to a different place with a lot of different people. And everything was going really good at Belmont.”
Owner Roddy Valente of Loudonville, who has 15 horses in training, including Bustin Shout entered for Saturday’s card, and 35 more in his breeding operation, said he would’ve preferred that they stay downstate.
He’s willing to chalk up 2020 as a lost year, as long as the racing can continue, which he needs to support the number of horses he has.
And this is somebody who actually will be allowed to come to the track, starting on Friday for those who have horses on that card.
“I’m happy about that, but truthfully, I’m way more concerned about the jockeys, backstretch workers, grooms and trainers staying healthy so we don’t lose racing,” he said. “I’m in trouble, with the amount of horses I have, if it gets shut down again. Why risk it? Why push the envelope?”
Trainer Chad Brown, who has won three Saratoga titles and three straight Eclipse Awards as the most outstanding trainer in North America, is in a different position, one that all the fans suffering melancholy on Thursday can identify with.
He grew up in Mechanicville, and his father Jerry and the rest of his family have been camping out at a picnic table next to the same tree for decades.
“Yeah, he wasn’t able to come up, but hopefully at some point he’ll be around,” Brown said, after winning the Peter Pan with Country Grammer.
“Really, just trying to focus on business, keeping everyone safe, first and foremost our employees. And NYRA’s really done a good job. It feels really safe on the backside training in the morning, and a lot of you have been out there … it’s well-organized. Hopefully, we can build off that and let more and more people in.”
If they do, it will be a substantially altered landscape, with just some picnic tables drawn by lottery, but the lucky fans who get them won’t care.
For all of you who weren’t allowed in here on Thursday, I can tell you they still ring the bell 17 minutes to post.
The old staircases still creak.
The pigeons are working hard at pigeoning, based on the desiccated little ball of crust that landed on my laptop keyboard from high in the Turf Terrace rafters. Maybe it was up there since the track was built in 1864, and the silence shook it free.
The pigeons are fully operational in spite of the resident red-tailed hawk, who appears to be well-fed, from what I saw when he swooped over the press box and took his spot on the tallest spire on Wednesday afternoon.
Those old rafters are still dark and mysterious. And solid.
The fog on the Oklahoma in early morning still captivates, especially when a horse silhouette emerges from it.
Be patient. And safe.
This place isn’t going anywhere.