SARATOGA SPRINGS – Opening day at Saratoga Race Course means different things, but one thing is certain: Whatever it means is heartfelt.
Starting with the annual run for picnic tables in the backyard, which occurred Thursday as soon as the gates opened at 7 a.m., fans congregated at the Spa for the beginning of the 40-day meet that will run through Labor Day.
Ballston Lake’s Mike Champagne served as the spokesperson for his group of about 10 playing a little a.m. water pong, though a few beers were being consumed along the way.
“We’re all local,” Champagne said. “It’s a tradition to come opening day. We actually came up last night and stayed overnight; first ones in, got the picnic tables.”
Champagne said his group arrived outside the main gates on Union Avenue about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Little bit of rain, but everybody just naturally falls asleep for, like, an hour and a half or so,” he said.
Champagne said his group would yell out, “And they’re off at Saratoga,” as track announcers over the years have asked fans to do for the first race of the meet. This year, because of a quick-but-potent rainstorm – that, of course, stopped once the first race had reached the backstretch – it wasn’t the crowd’s best effort. But if rain were a real deterrent for Saratoga fans, they wouldn’t have the reputation they do.
This year’s crowd was a little slower to arrive than usual, but by the second race, all but a few of the backyard picnic tables were taken and a decent number of grandstand seats filled. There were the usual sights, sounds and smells. But mixing in with perfume and cologne was the occasional, unmistakable smell of marijuana in the backyard.
However fans enjoy themselves, at Saratoga it’s all about the racing. When Royal Tryst won the first race, the horse’s connections expressed why Saratoga is the most important meet in the country.
“We got a lot of horses up here, the most horses we’ve ever brought,” winning trainer Mike Maker said. “We have 63 here and 50 at Belmont.”
“I’m grateful to be back here, and this place means a lot to us,” said winning jockey Luis Saez, wearing a crust of the kick-backed dirt on his upper lip in the winner’s circle. “I’m happy, and the people here love the sport. They love racing and us, the jockeys. It’s exciting for everybody.”
Before that first race, Guilderland’s Heidi Mesec stopped by the foot of the clubhouse escalator, where she knew she would find employee John, and she gave him a big hug in another sure sign that it’s opening day – reunions. The phrase “same time, next year” is said at the track almost as much as “two dollars to win on…”
Mesec, who comes with her husband as many days of the meet as they can, met her future husband 12 years ago.
“When I met him, he said, ‘I hit the Saratoga track every week,’ and I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see how it goes,’ and two days in I [was] in love with it too. He’s more of the betting part of it, I’m more of the social part.”
Mesec and her husband were married nearly eight years ago, and the wedding photos were taken at the track. “Which was awesome,” Mesec said, “because we had jockeys come out, winner’s circle photos, everything! Everyone was more than gracious and generous. We got married at town hall and came right here.”
Mesec and her husband became partial owners in the America’s Pastime Stables, a mostly local racing partnership.
“We’re loving it so far, gives us a few more perks,” Mesec said. “So today we have a horse, not ours, but one of our partners has a horse in today, so we’ll be cheering them on.”
Another annual tradition on opening day is a race named after the late Larry Sparagen of Schenectady. This year’s, run as the third race of the day, was the 15th annual Larry Sparagen Race. Sparagen, who died of a rare neurological disease in 2008, was the president of Schenectady Hardware & Electric.
“My father used to take all of his employees to Saratoga on opening day,” said his daughter, Kelly Sparagen Young, “and when he passed, we decided that that was going to be our tradition: to all come here – no matter what, no matter where we live and we’ve all had crazy schedules. Every year we are going to be here on opening day.”
Sparagen Young said family members come from as far away as Florida for the opening-day race in honor of her father.
“I feel like my dad is with me every year I’m here. … By being here on this day, it’s kept his memory alive,” Sparagen Young said.