SARATOGA SPRINGS — First post wouldn’t be for another six hours, but the most anticipated race of opening day at Saratoga Race Course came promptly at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
The front gates open, and for the first time since Labor Day 2019, fans flooded onto the grounds at the historic track, making the traditional wild rush to claim dibs on the prime picnic tables they’d park themselves at for the rest of the day.
It’s an annual tradition that, like so many others, has returned this year after the novel coronavirus pandemic took it away in 2020.
“Get here early,” said Keith Lovellette of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who was attending his 22nd Saratoga opening day. “The gates open at 7 a.m., get in and get your spot at the top of the stretch for us where we go most of the time.”
Thursday was something of a catharsis for the fans, employees and horsepeople around Saratoga. Last year’s meet was held in something of a ghost town, as restrictions brought on by the pandemic barred the general public from attending the track as racing was held virtually behind closed doors, with only a small group of owners and media members as the only outside personnel allowed on the grounds.
As fans returned Thursday, a raucous crowd was on hand to race for the best tables just after dawn, and by an hour before post time, standstill traffic stretched up and down Union Avenue outside the front gate.
By the end of Thursday, 27,760 fans passed through Saratoga’s turnstiles, an increase of more than 5,000 from the last opening day with fans in 2019, which had an attendance of 22,591.
“It’s thrilling to know that the backyard, the apron, the grandstands will be full of passionate racing fans come 1 p.m. this afternoon after a year without spectators where this facility was frankly a shell of itself,” Pat McKenna senior director, communications at the New York Racing Association, said. “It is the fans and the patrons that make Saratoga so special.”
All over the grounds Thursday, there were scenes of excitement as one of the Capital Region’s summer hallmarks made its triumphant return.
AND THEY’RE OFF!
Lovellette called himself a “frequent visitor” to Saratoga Race Course, but admitted his days of running to a picnic table are over.
So, he brought in a ringer — his 27-year-old pharmacist daughter, Paige.
“You have to send a runner to get a spot,” Keith Lovellette said. “We send her in to grab a couple of tables and then we bring in all the rest of the goodies for the day and we set up shop.”
That’s a lot of pressure.
“Just run, I know where to go,” Paige Lovellette said.
“Get a table or don’t come back,” another family member chimed in as the group laughed.
“It’s an expensive Uber ride home if you don’t get a table,” Keith Lovellette said with a chuckle.
Across the street from the main entrance after the early morning excitement, Debbie Houtman of Queensbury was treating her friend to a view of horses exercising at the Oklahoma Training Track.
“I’ve been [coming] here since 2011,” Houtman said. “I moved to Queensbury from Clinton Corners and bought my camera in 2012.”
Houtman was trying out a new telephoto lens, standing next to the rail at the Oklahoma track, taking photos of each horse and exercise rider that went by while educating her friend, Tracy Langdon from South Glens Falls.
“I’ve been down here before [at the main track], but not down here at the Oklahoma track,” Langdon said. “This is awesome, the horses are amazing, just spectacular to see it first-hand and be right there.”
WELCOME BACK WITH A WIN
Put it this way: It took Irad Ortiz Jr. much longer to get 200 yards from the winner’s circle back to the jockeys’ quarters than it did for his horse Charlie’sarchangel to run a mile and an eighth around the main track.
For the record, Charlie’sarchangel won the first race of the meet in 1:55.05 , after which Ortiz headed back to the room to shower and get ready for his next race.
Accompanied by four security guards who didn’t have much more to do than stand back and grin, Ortiz was repeatedly intercepted by fans. They hugged him, patted him on the back, got autographs and took selfies, a far cry from 2020, when the jockeys took that same lonely walk by themselves after every race.
As much as the fans were ready to bring an outpouring of affection, the feeling was mutual.
“I love this meet and I love the crowd,” Ortiz said. “I want to win anywhere, but to do it here, it’s great.”
Ortiz won the riding championship at Saratoga last summer, for which he was awarded the trophy named for Angel Cordero Jr.
Hardly anyone was there to see it.
On Thursday, he made the first step towards maybe another title by winning aboard Charlie’sarchangel. If it happens, the scene will be much different on closing day, and not unlike what Ortiz experienced on Thursday.
“There are no words for that; last year was very sad,” Ortiz said. “A lot of things happened, and I really missed the fans, so I feel very excited and happy to get them back.
“Thank God we started with the right foot, we’ve got one win, so I’m so happy to get to the winner’s circle.”
Each day at Saratoga, the grounds are cleared at 10 a.m. with re-entry beginning at 11 a.m. and a larger, more bustling, but orderly crowd came through the turnstiles including a trio of friends from Connecticut.
“I own shares in a racehorse [Frosted Oats] and always come with my friends,” Jay Lanza of New Milford said. “This is opening day, we’ve been waiting for two years, so we’re here.”
With a small stake in owning Frosted Oats, Lanza was excited to see his two-year-old filly race.
“I have very little skin in the game, but it makes you feel important,” Lanza said. “It’s fun to just be involved and get into the paddock and the winner’s circle if it happens. It’s a special place.”
The group missed the Saratoga experience last year.
“I’ve been coming here for 20-something years, we missed last year and so glad to be back,” Gary Petcavage from Bethel, Connecticut said.
The group made their own Saratoga at-home event last Labor Day.
“We had a party on my girlfriend’s patio, we threw the TV outside and we bet on the horses through the computer, but it’s not like being here,” Petcavage said. “I was praying we’d be back to this. Thank god.”
ELEVATING THE EXPERIENCE
Working at the track in 2020 was a surreal, often frustrating experience.
“It was kind of like banging your head against the wall,” said Davis Klein, a guest services associate with NYRA Bets, the New York Racing Association’s electronic wagering platform. “We were just wishing and hoping that we could’ve had people.”
Klein said the employees on hand did the best they could given the circumstances to provide a quality experience for the scant few owners who were able to be on hand in 2020.
It took just one look outside his window in the lobby of the 1863 Club on Thursday morning for Klein to realize the energy is just a little bit different this year.
“It’s definitely been hectic. A little bit chaotic,” Klein said. “I think everyone might be a little rusty from not having it last year. People were lining up out front at 5 in the morning, and that’s exactly what we wanted to see.”
This is Klein’s sixth summer working at Saratoga, but the Louisville, Kentucky native’s connection to the track started well before that.
“I’ve probably been coming here since I was 10 years old,” he said.
For Klein, the biggest task this year will be helping patrons navigate some of the changes that have been made in the wagering system since fans last attended racing at Saratoga in 2019.
The excitement of fans’ return to the track will make a few hiccups here and there a little more palatable.
“There’s a lot of anticipation,” Klein said, “to say the least.”