For the 152nd running of the Travers Stakes Saturday afternoon, there were things you can always count on — throngs of people in attendance, bets being made well before the first race, a longtime employee welcoming you at the Club Terrace restaurant, a locally created bed of flowers for the winner, and a new paint job for the canoe floating in the Saratoga Race Course infield pond.
Saturday’s announced paid attendance was 44,507, a welcome sight to NYRA officials and downtown Saratoga Springs businesses after last year’s meet was limited to approved trainers, owners and staff due to novel coronavirus guidelines.
Fantasy friends gather
Shortly after the gates opened at 7 a.m. this Saturday a group of friends set aside their racing publications and pulled out wide spreadsheets of paper and started their NFL Fantasy Draft — no electricity required.
This group of longtime Saratoga friends have been drafting their teams by hand, pen to paper for more than 20 years, each year, at the top of the stretch, the morning of the Travers.
“The draft is manual, but then I’ll go home and enter everyone’s picks into the CBSsports.com website,” Saratoga Springs native Kevin Garneau said, traveling from Lexington, Mississippi, for Saturday’s draft and the Travers. “It’s always in person; we don’t do an online draft, never have.”
Last year’s even was held via Zoom, but still pen to paper among the friends and joking throughout the multi-hours session.
Due to the throwback method, the morning included several shouted questions like “who did he take?” and “who’s up now?” among the three picnic tables as friendly barbs.
Members offered some history within the unofficial Toga Fantasy League group, which never officially produced a name for its league.
“The greatest trade that ever happened was when Bill traded me Peyton Manning for Steve McNair,” Garneau said.
Bill Wade Jr. of Clifton Park, the loser in that trade, quickly defended his historic swap.
“I started out 0-4, I had the most points allowed,” Wade said. “I had Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.”
Paul Onyon Sr. of Saratoga Springs was invited into the group with open arms, and now has the most league titles.
“When they first invited me into the league, I was picking players that I just knew, like Jerry Rice,” he said. “They didn’t tell me he was three years removed from any productivity and that’s all I picked, so they loved me.
“Then I made some adjustments, you have to be lucky and now I feel like I’ve gone the other way again. I’ve peaked and now I’m down because I don’t pay as much attention.”
Onyon followed that up immediately with, “Did I just miss a pick?”
During Travers Day, 70-year-old waitstaff member Vaughn Gordon hustles from one table to another at the Club Terrace restaurant, his 55th Travers Day on duty.
“I started here in 1966,” Gordon said proudly. “It’s in my blood. I’ve seen a lot of changes on this track over the years.”
Gordon was behind the bar for 16 years after a decade in the kitchen.
“Then they allowed people to bring their own liquor onto the racetrack and then I jumped on the floor,” Gordon said. “I figured people are always going to have to eat. I’ve been waiting tables for 30 years.”
Gordon, a Saratoga Springs native, now resides in Newport, Rhode Island, and like many, had a solitary 2020 racing season away from Saratoga Race Course.
“Everything was closed in Newport but liquor stores, doctors’ offices and supermarkets; everything else was closed,” Gordon said. “You couldn’t go to the different states either because they were isolated, so you were stuck at home.”
He was happy to return once again to his summer duties.
“A lot of people know me. I’ve met a lot of people from years ago,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty well known around here.”
He has no plans of slowing down.
“I’ll stop when my body tells me it’s time,” he said. “I stay fit, I go to the gym five days a week when I could, but during the pandemic I couldn’t so I did the best I could at home.
“I’ve got a lot of knowledge up here; right now I’m trying to give it to these younger people out here. I try to train them the right way and talk the right way to these people. You have to give great service.”
Travers winner Essential Quality was adorned by a bed of flowers created by Wilton resident Susan Garrett, proprietor of Champion Floral Blankets by Susan, using red and white carnations supplied by Dehn’s Flowers in Saratoga.
Another Traver’s Day tradition is to repaint the canoe that resides on the infield pond to represent the light blue silks of Godolphin Racing for the next year.
Since 1961, the colors of the winners of the Travers Stakes have been painted onto a canoe — or in the case of the 2012 dead-heat between Golden Ticket and Alpha, two canoes — which floats on an infield pond for a year.
Or in the case of 2011 Travers winner Stay Thirsty, whose owner, Mike Repole of Repole Stable, decided to purchase the canoe, painted with his blue-and-orange silks, reflecting his lifelong New York Mets fandom.
“I made a donation to the backstretch and toward horse rescue,” Repole said. “Of all the trophies I ever won, the Travers Repole Stable canoe in my backyard is the greatest trophy of my life.”
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