SARATOGA SPRINGS — May as well get this over with:
I set the over/under on Saratoga Race Course opening-day paid admission at 40,000, a number I came up with in early June, right after the Belmont Stakes.
My friend Gene Kershner from the Buffalo News challenged it immediately, and a (very) small wager ensued.
Note to self: Stop making predictions. Also: Stop by the ATM before Jim Dandy weekend.
Believing hordes of fans would be Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicking the turnstiles down after having been denied entrance in 2020, I tossed out a guess that turned out to be woefully, laughably off the mark.
For the record, the New York Racing Association announced paid admission at 27,760 on Thursday, a pretty solid total, and it felt like a robust response to 2020, from having walked around the backyard picnic area, the apron and the various floors of the grandstand and clubhouse several times throughout the day.
For some, the day started a few hours before the gates opened at 7 a.m., as they waited to be among the first to burst through and reserve the free picnic tables.
First dude through seemed to speak for everyone when he bellowed “LET’S GO!!” with a grammatical intensifier between “let’s” and “go” that I can’t print here.
So they didn’t get 40,000, but if racing fans around here and beyond simply wanted everything to be back to normal, they got it. Not abnormal, not cartoonishly more crowded than previous Saratoga meets, just … normal.
Along those lines, that big wooden box that imprisoned the business end of the Big Red Spring last year and blocked what few people were allowed on the grounds from partaking in its life-sustaining and healing powers has been removed.
So when an old high school buddy turned up unexpectedly on Saturday with three family members, none of whom had ever been to Saratoga, I marched them over to the spring to get a taste.
We’re only four racing days into the meet, but familiar notes are ringing all over the place.
There’s brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz populating the top of the jockey standings, and although Joel Rosario, who had a stellar meet in 2020, is off to a slow start, Luis Saez is tied with Irad in first after having finished fourth last year.
Among the horses Saez has to look forward to riding at the meet is Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality, the 2020 champion and early favorite to win the Jim Dandy and Travers.
His eight winners so far include Pretty Birdie in the Grade III Schuylerville and Rinaldi in the Grade III Forbidden Apple, and he didn’t miss by much in the Grade I Diana on Saturday aboard Summer Romance, finishing second by a half a length to Althiqa.
Didn’t seem like there was a very big crowd on Friday, despite the announced number of 23,204, and 25,520 on Saturday seemed like 25,520. Then rain all day on Sunday limited the track to what may have been a lot of diehard out-of-towners who were sticking to commitments and plans among the announced 17,794.
Without getting to the granular level of examining and comparing wagering handle based on per-betting-interest and number of races run, NYRA had to be happy with the all-sources total of $90,112,254 for four days, up 10.9% from last year ($80,325,660).
If you’re thinking that the 2020 number was lower because of no on-track handle, the pandemic year with nobody on the grounds actually was up almost $7 million from 2019 ($73,441,101) for the same four-day period to start the meet.
Back to the 40,000 … if you’re wondering how someone could make such a poor prediction, realize that my Triple Crown picks in 2015 were Upstart in the Kentucky Derby (finished last of 18); Firing Line in the Preakness (seventh, beat one horse, so … improvement); and Frosted in the Belmont (second).
The winner of all three races was some horse named American Pharoah.
So when the Travers comes around in late August and I make a selection, tread lightly with your betting dollars.
In the meantime, when I introduced my friend Mike to the Big Red Spring and its sumptuously sulfurous flavor on Saturday — “It brings good luck!” — he took a taste, screwed up his face and spit it on the ground.
Like I said, back to normal.
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