Bill Holmes leaned above one of the flower boxes lining the winner’s circle at Saratoga Race Course.
“Great race!” said Holmes, who lives in Lindenhurst on Long Island, seconds after the completion of Saturday’s competitive 143rd Travers Stakes. “I think my horse might have nosed out a win. I’m a big Alpha fan.
“Come on, Alpha ... get that head bob,” Holmes said, well aware Golden Ticket was also in the picture for the photo finish. “Get that head bob.”
Alpha didn’t get that head bob. The favorite in Saratoga’s signature race had just finished in a dead heat with Golden Ticket, a 33-1 shot, and put an astonished charge into people who watched the late afternoon drama on Union Avenue.
“That’s about as close of a race as you can get,” said Holmes, whose $2 investment made him $4.10. “I’ll take it.”
So did thousands of other racing fans who crowded the grandstand, clubhouse and picnic backyard to see the historic big finish. The tie was the first dead heat in the Travers since 1874.
The scene was part of a Travers Day that brought hats, gowns, cigars, tents and beer to the race course. There were birthday parties, bachelor parties, college reunions and family gatherings.
Colleen Buell of Gansevoort celebrated her 60th birthday — whether she wanted to or not.
“It’s not a party, they just wanted to announce to the world that I’m 60,” Buell said of her friends. “Do you want to be 60? Who wants to be 60?”
Everyone had an opinion — about something.
Track fans were in calm and cool moods at 10:25 a.m., with the first post still about an hour away and the afternoon heat and humidity still two hours off.
Forty people lined up at the Dunkin’ Donuts stand for coffee and sweets. Guys in shorts and short-brimmed fedora hats lugged coolers across the picnic sections.
Rob Keiper and friends, camped out across from the fenced path to the paddock, played a collegiate game of skill. Two guys stood on each end of a picnic table wrapped in cobalt blue and tried to bounce a pingpong ball into a cluster of tall, red plastic cups.
“It’s beer pong,” said Keiper, 30, who lives in Clifton Park. “We get the pingpong ball into the cup. If we make it, they have to drink the cup. We started at 8:30.”
The guys really started six hours earlier, at 2:30, when they joined the line in front of the main entrance. As usual, Travers early birds were admitted to the backyard at 7 a.m., and once gates opened, men and women scattered like ducks swimming away from sharks as they frantically tagged picnic tables.
“It was crazy,” Keiper said. “It was awesome.”
Beer pong continued a little longer.
“Once the races start, that’s when we focus on the horses,” Keiper said. “For now, we drink beer.”
On the front apron, on green benches across from the final stretch, Rosalie Moyer of Bethlehem, Pa., took a picture of her Pennsylvanians.
“This is my crew right here,” said Moyer, 47. “We have 54 from the Lehigh Valley — Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.”
“There’s a group up there,” Moyer added, gesturing toward seats in the grandstand. “Wave, everybody — yoo-hoo!”
Moyer had reason for exuberance. Friday and Saturday were her first visits to Saratoga.
“It’s warm, it’s inviting,” Moyer said. “It’s easy to get to the betting booths. It’s a nice setting.”
Ted Williams Long, 55, of Allentown, has put together the Lehigh bus charter to Saratoga for the past five years.
“We like the excitement, we like the big crowds,” said Long, who said he was named after the famous Boston Red Sox outfielder. “I’m a big horse racing fan, so I run bus trips every weekend. We want to go to the big spots. We go to Delaware Park in Philadelphia, Penn National, but this is the premier spot.”
Seeking the Gold
Red and purple were the winners in the unofficial Travers T-shirt competition. Twenty-plus guys wore custom-made red Travers shirts for their day-long party at the backyard’s Big Red Spring. The 30-strong gang from Niagara University, dressed in green for 2011, returned to college form Saturday with purple shirts — purple and white are the traditional favorites of the Western New York university.
But one of the Purple Eagles didn’t get the memo. That’s why Niagara was showing gold.
“We do a different shirt every year,” said Jason Merolle, 39, of Latham, whose wife, Lisa Marro Merolle, graduated from Niagara in 1995. “A different person makes up the shirts every year. It’s more color than anything, and the person who designed them is a big Minnesota Vikings fan. We went with the purple and gold, and there’s a Niagara undertone to it.”
Frank Orsini and his friends brought tropical shirts to the party. They also brought a violin, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass. Frank and the Upstate Bluegrass Band performed under the tall awning and maple tree leading into the clubhouse.
Orsini said passers-by appreciated the band’s efforts.
“They smile, they talk with us,” said Orsini, who lives in Glens Falls. “Sometimes we have an impromptu dance here.”
The violin player said Travers Day has its own vibe.
“It’s definitely more of a crowd, definitely more excitement,” Orsini said. “It’s like the biggest day.”
For the fourth straight Travers, Lindsey Montanye of Queensbury made her own hat. This year’s awe-inspiring model was black with pink tulle.
“It has to match, and it has to look good,” said Montanye, 26, who also wore a pink dress.
“And it has to be lucky,” added her husband, Michael.
Someone asked if the black and pink combination had improved the Montanyes’ racing fortunes.
“Not for me,” said Michael.
“Not for me, either,” added Lindsey.
Michele MacDonald and Matt Callahan are getting married Sept. 22 — not to each other. But they were thinking the same thing when they decided to conduct their farewells to single life at Saratoga.
“I love the racetrack, and the timing was right,” said MacDonald, 28, who held her bachelorette party in the crowded backyard.
She had seven girlfriends with her and wore a pink ribbon sash with light pink cowgirl hat.
“We’re having a blast,” added MacDonald, who grew up in Scotia and now lives in Colonie. “I wish I could make some money, though.”
Callahan, who lives in Newburgh, observed his bachelor party with pals who wore white shirts emblazoned with the words “Matt’s Last Race.”
“Beer is cold,” said Callahan, whose friends seemed more interested in the bachelorette party.
“Where they going afterward?” asked Doug Rosenthall, 35, of Troy.
Steve McDonald of Queens knows how to attract a crowd. He brought his battery-operated blender into the racetrack and set up a tent and chairs near the paddock.
“It’s a chick magnet,” said one of McDonald’s associates about their setup.
McDonald mixed up a red, fruity vodka slush. He said women will often inquire about the drink magician.
McDonald, 45, who takes his vacation during the summer, said he is at the track just about every day in July and August.
“I’m doing what I love,” he said. “Drinking, betting and chasing women.”