The horses’ breath clouded in the air Tuesday as they crunched onto the frozen track for their morning workout.
“C’mon, baby,” an exercise rider coaxed a thoroughbred, and the two jogged off down the track, leaving only the sound of twittering birds under a clear sky.
Assistant trainer Scott Acker didn’t plan a tough workout for his 17 horses Tuesday.
They arrived Monday at Saratoga along with the grooms, who moved into their dormitories all in one day. The operation usually takes two days, Acker said.
Acker is an assistant trainer for Gary Contessa, who appeared to be the only trainer with horses at the track Tuesday morning for the opening of the training season at Saratoga.
Most of the barns were empty and dark, and the track was so quiet that the hollow whir of traffic on the Adirondack Northway could be heard in the distance.
New York Racing Association spokesman John Lee said he expects 900 horses to train at the track this season.
“It’ll take a couple of weeks to get there,” he said.
It’s normal for the trainers, workers and their horses to trickle in during the first week or two, agreed head clocker Freddie Bond, who spent early Tuesday morning in a heated shed overlooking the training track.
At 7 a.m., a few tractors combed the track breaking up frozen dirt before the horses went out, and Bond caught up with other employees who stopped by to say hello.
He expected to see light workouts on the track for the first day. “Most of them will be out just jogging around.”
In one of Contessa’s barns, Acker was busy Tuesday morning, keeping his employees on track to bring horses out for their workout. “We’re mostly just trying to settle in and organize,” he said, adding it takes a day or two after the move to get into the routine again.
In the next few weeks, Contessa’s seven barns at the Oklahoma track will hold nearly 100 horses. Most will come from the trainer’s headquarters at Aqueduct, Acker said.
“We had a good winter,” he said.
Contessa swept the two New York Stallion Stakes at Aqueduct over the weekend with Like a Rose and Fort Drum.
Despite the months-long conflict in Albany over who would run the horse racing franchise this year, the opening of the Oklahoma track was business as usual.
“You don’t miss a beat,” Acker said. “It doesn’t affect us too much, unless they totally stop racing. You’ve still got to get up every morning to do the routine.”
The New York Racing Association was awarded the franchise again, although it will be reorganized with a new board of trustees and an oversight board.
The Oklahoma training season runs from now until the end of October, and racing at Saratoga Race Course starts its 140th season Wednesday, July 23 and continues through Labor Day, Sept. 1.