A short, dramatic opera took place late Saturday afternoon at Saratoga Race Course.
The “singing” began at 5:46 p.m., when 10 horses burst from the starting gate in the Travers Stakes.
“Nobody wants it,” volunteered a baritone voice, as every thoroughbred looked even during the first seconds. “Go Shackleford! Take it!”
“Shackleford’s going to die,” answered a somber voice. “Just like at the Belmont!”
“No!” answered the first. “He has a high, cruising speed!”
A tenor’s voice piped up, from the hundred people gathered in front of the giant television monitor near the Big Red Spring mineral water fountain in the picnic area. “There’s my Moonshine Mullin!” he cried. “Looming, looming to pick up the pieces.”
There was a happy ending for only one. Favorite Stay Thirsty won the 142nd running of Saratoga’s signature race, also known as the Midsummer Derby, as 43,050 celebrated summer on a humid, hazy day. Fans drank beer and wine, smoked cigars, wore race day fashions and decided to worry later about the dark rider Hurricane Irene.
They didn’t have to worry about Sunday’s racing card. Shortly before Saturday’s last race, the New York Racing Association announced it was canceling the 11 scheduled races.
The Travers Day on-track handle was $8.17 million, down from in $8.21 million in 2010. The total handle was slightly over $33 million, down 3 percent from $33.8 million in parimutuel tickets purchased in 2010.
The running man
When people weren’t betting, they were socializing during the Capital Region’s largest outdoor picnic of the year.
As usual, Travers Day early birds were admitted to the race course’s back yard at 7 a.m. And following custom, track fans looking for picnic tables zigged and zagged like chipmunks running from great horned owls.
Ron Frantz, 44, of Ballston Spa, was one who ran. He was in line at the track’s main gate at 4 a.m., and was not happy to see some fans sprinting inside the grounds — while his gate remained closed. He wasn’t sure if some guards had opened another gate early or if some sneaky fans had crashed the morning party by climbing the track fence.
“This is a religious place,” he said. “People shouldn’t abuse it.”
Frantz and his running mate, Gary Platek of Rochester, still got two tables. And Frantz had no hard feelings by late afternoon.
“Just being here is a winner,” he said.
Travers jockeys in red, purple and green silks weren’t the only sharp-dressed guys at the track.
Kirk MacDonald, 27, of Saratoga Springs, and 15 friends wore bright yellow shirts that advertised allegiance to the Big Red Spring. And to former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and professional hockey player Matt Murley.
Murley’s smiling face was printed in red on the back of each shirt. He founded the Big Red Spring party in 2002, but is currently skating overseas in the Swedish Elite League.
“We’re kind of taking over for him this year,” said MacDonald, a 2007 RPI graduate and also a hockey alumnus. “I’ve talked to him a couple times. He wanted to be here, but I know he’s having a good time in Sweden, so I don’t feel too sorry for him.”
Kelly green shirts suited Jason Merolle of Latham and about 20 pals from Niagara University and other places. The men and women have been making the Travers an annual destination since 2003 and have been designing race day shirts since 2004. This year’s silk-screened inscription was “I came for the waters ... I was misinformed.”
Merolle knows the lines are an exchange from the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film classic “Casablanca.” Rookie members of the Niagara Travers crew are asked to guzzle a salty drink from the Big Red Spring before settling down for beer and sandwiches.
More topical inspiration might have come from Bogart’s 1948 tropical storm drama “Key Largo.” But Merolle and his people were smiling about Sunday’s expected bad weather. “You can’t change it, you’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “We don’t get hit that often.”
The hat squad
Rick Massey, 30, and Dominique Gentiles, 27, both of New York City, took the more formal approach. Massey wore a dark gray pinstripe suit, white shirt and tie; Gentiles watched a race at the rail in floral print dress full of pinks, yellows, oranges and purples. Both wore sunglasses and narrow-brimmed fedoras.
“We’re matched perfectly,” Massey said.
Gentiles didn’t need more flowers on her hat. She preferred her more masculine, tan-colored lid.
“I’m here to bet, just like the men,” she said.
The metropolitans seemed glad to be north of Hurricane Irene.
“We evacuated the premises,” Gentiles said. “I didn’t duct tape my windows. I’m hoping for the best.”
Lisa Moskowitz, 40, wasn’t concerned about late August weather back home — she’s from Wichita, Kansas. Moskowitz was proud of her wide, custard-color hat, decorated with fabric sea shells. Race courses, she said, are just one place for public display.
“In Kansas, we wear them for different events,” she said. “Garden parties and the pool.”
A T-shirt and shorts were fashion enough for Greg Ryan, 46, of Schenectady. He was mostly interested in watching the vast assemblage of horses and people during nearly seven hours of racing.
Ryan saw his horse, Mineswept, lose the first race to 50-1 longshot Pretty Boy Freud, who returned $102.50 for a $2 bet.
“Usually, I bet only longshots,” he said. “I just blew my Pick 3.”
For Ryan, an easier pick is just coming to the Travers every year. “I grew up around here,” he said. “It’s just a big event for the area, and it’s nostalgic. I’ve been doing it forever.”
Fans in the backyard sat under portable picnic tents. They were not worried about early rain.
“It’s not for the storm,” said Mike Platt, 36, of Syracuse, as he and friends assembled their green shelter. “It’s for the sun.”
“We don’t want to get burned,” said Mindy Higgins, 25, of Rome.
John Piccola, 34, of Utica, was ready for any weather. “If it rains, it rains,” he said. “What’s a little wind going to do to you? It’s not going to snow.”
Another tent fan, former Glenville resident Chris Markowicz, was more concerned about the elements. He and his friends sat under a tent’s metal skeleton — there had been a blown coverage.
“We left it in Boston,” said Markowicz, 30, who now lives in Waltham.. “We’re hoping for good weather.”
“We remembered the beer, but we forgot the cover`” added Kristen Bourikas, 25, of Boston.
Markowicz still pitched the poles. “For our territory,” he said.
Blues for Mo
While Travers starters received plenty of attention, Uncle Mo may have received the loudest encouragement. The 2010 2-year-old champ, out of this year’s Triple Crown campaign, returned to racing in Saturday’s King’s Bishop. He walked by hundreds of cheering fans in the paddock, on his way to the main track.
Bernie Stanalonis of Chambersburg, Pa., was in the first row by the paddock fence and snapped the big horse’s picture. “He’s a horse everybody can latch onto,” Stanalonis said. “He can be another America’s horse if he keeps running the way he should.”
America will have to wait another day. Uncle Mo finished a close second to Caleb’s Posse.
The Lillian show
Lillian Bergbom, 6, of Saratoga Springs, wasn’t watching the weather. She was watching horses and watching swing dancers on the move with banjo and brass regulars of Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers.
“This is her sixth Travers,” said father Bart Bergbom from a crowded space near the paddock. “She was less than a month old for her first Travers.”
Lillian already has figured out her favorite parts of the racing game. “Well, winning,” she said. “And the money.”
Bart Bergbom said his daughter must learn a few more things about furlongs and finishes. She expects all her winning horses will bring big paydays. “Which is what we all want,” Bergbom said. “But she’s doing better than me.”
At 7:30 p.m., there were no breezes at Saratoga. Blue-gray skies were over the track. There wasn’t a drop of rain in the air.
There were only two fans in the red seats at the lower Carousel bar under the grandstand, watching races from Del Mar in California. Conor Healy and his wife, Eileen, planned a Sunday morning drive back home to Trenton, Ontario.
“There’s usually a crowd here,” Conor said.