SARATOGA SPRINGS — Every day was the same.
Except that Ned Ryerson wasn’t there to step in the puddle.
And the grass kept growing a little bit more. The grass looked great.
Temperature check, wristband, breeze into the parking lot and walk up to the third floor. I had my regular table in the Turf Terrace restaurant, but no maitre d’ to greet me. Just pigeons. And their, um, “puddles.”
Then the races would start, and the only way you could distinguish between a lousy claiming race on a ho-hum Wednesday card and the $1.25 million Travers was by checking your program.
Because nobody was there.
Welcome to Saratoga Race Course in the summer of 2020. If you’re reading this, there’s an extremely high probability that this description is all you have.
If you’re going to be at the track on Thursday, welcome back.
I was there on Saturday morning to watch some of the big horses stretch their legs, then made my old 2020 walk and can confirm they have raised the Titanic, chipped off the barnacles and algae, and buffed up the floors, stairways and seats.
One of my lingering images from last year was the bourbon bar a flight of steps down from the Turf Terrace. The bar was covered with dust, and on it rested a wait tray with grimy champagne flutes, some of them broken, still left untouched and unwashed from closing day in 2019 and giving the impression that you were wandering underwater in a sunken ocean liner left for dead.
The place looked great on Saturday, the way it’s supposed to, the way thousands of people will remember it when they plow through the gates this Thursday for opening day of the 153rd Saratoga meet.
Of course, everything was shut down and canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I get the sense that there’s going to be a little extra fervor for the return of fans to Saratoga. Not just for the simple fact that people are passionate about it, but because major league sports have been playing to big crowds for months now, while the Saratoga crew has grimly waited — and waited — its turn.
There were times when you couldn’t help but wonder whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo even knew that the track existed (a charge that has been fired his way since well before the pandemic). His weekly COVID updates painted rosy pictures for all manner of public activities gradually opening up again, but Saratoga didn’t get a whiff of that until April 14, three months before opening day.
When he finally did announce that tracks were good to go on 20% capacity, it came in a press release rustled up several hours after he had held a live presser … at Belmont Park. You know. The racetrack.
Thankfully, we don’t have to contemplate what a measly 20% would look like at Saratoga, or what kind of ticketing nightmare, under intense demand, would’ve been evoked.
I’ll take this opportunity to remind my friend Gene Kershner at the Buffalo News that we have a very small wager on whether they get 40,000 paid admission on opening day, a bet that was made before Gov. Andrew Cuomo knocked out the final impediment to full capacity. I know Geno didn’t forget, but there’s no gloat like the premature gloat.
Even if they fall short of 40,000, the first steps will be taken to murder the grass in the backyard picnic area.
When Saratoga is in its normal rocking state, that wildly popular section is a well-traveled patch of dirt. The grass looked nice, but I prefer the colorful plastic table coverings from Dollar General pinned by picnickers scrambling through at 7 a.m. to claim their spot.
A few of us in the press regularly took advantage of the open-air Turf Terrace as an auxilliary pressbox in the spirit of social distancing last year, and I came to the wistful realization on Saturday that there was low probability of ever getting a table in there again.
Besides the dusty bourbon bar, my other primary memory about the emptiness actually is a full, fierce whistle of appreciation from Liza Sheker, the 47-year-old mom of two that I tracked down and wrote about a few days after Tiz the Law and jockey Manny Franco had won the Travers.
This very loud disembodied sound came from behind a covered fenceline along Nelson Avenue as Franco walked Tiz back to the winner’s circle, and he acknowledged the 50 or so fans trying to catch any kind of glimpse of the action from the sidewalk outside the track grounds.
The Whistling Woman’s superpower is one of those two-finger pipes you hear from a football coach, and because there was no roar of the crowd on Travers Day, I distinctly heard her whistle from a quarter-mile away.
Maybe I’ll hear her whistle again this year.
Then again, maybe she’ll be 50 feet away this time, and I won’t be able to hear it at all.
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