The Saratoga Summer
Every year the calendar lies.
For many, summer in these parts does not arrive with the equinox, or students scrambling out on the last day of school, or even with the explosion of Fourth-of-July fireworks.
Summer arrives on a mid-July Friday, on time and in rhythm.
It arrives in the rhythm of the hordes of people, some in suits and summer dresses, others in shorts with coolers in tow, crossing Union Avenue.
It arrives in the rhythm of the crowd inside, unique in sound, collective voices slowly building into a roar, then dropping off precipitously post-race into scattered punctuations, some profane and a few celebratory.
Summer arrives in the
rhythm of the bets, made with confidence and hope and, at the end of a long, bad day, prayer.
It arrives with the rhythm of the hoofbeats, clopping across the cinder paths, splashing through the muck, thundering down the homestretch.
Summer arrives today at and with Saratoga — no mention of race course needed, although The Track also suffices. It’s always on time, punctuating the season and the year in its habitual 40 days.
Today opens with a burst, with hats, with the rituals of taking a day from work and staking out your spot and vowing, this year, you will make some coin. Not that it really matters, of course, since a day in the backyard is worth the (raised) $5 cost of admission and whatever few bucks you wager. (Insert cautionary/obligatory “Bet with you head, not over it” bromide here.)
On Sunday, let the spinning begin on the first of four giveaway days. (Note the new restrictions; it will be harder to walk away with an armload of eBay-ready inventory.) The freebie fest starts with a hat on a day devoted to them at the track.
And they’re off. Saratoga takes over the rhythm of summer, with its dark day Tuesdays and event racing on the weekends. There are changes this year, to be sure: Fewer races overall, bigger stakes, the steeplechase exiled to Wednesdays and Thursdays pre-1 p.m. before the rest of the card. The track itself looks a little different, with more high-def TVs and picnic tables, better Wi-Fi and new vendors. There is still a 19th-century aesthetic — the race course celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013 — but everywhere you look there are concessions to and embracements of 21st-century expectations for amenities and information.
Still, as one New York Racing Association executive said the other day, the most important thing officials can do when it comes to Saratoga and its tradition is “try to not get in the way.”
The weeks will roll by, with July giving way to August. (Remember when Saratoga was “The August Place to Be?” Still is.) The name races will reach the starting gate: The Whitney (Aug. 2); Fourstardave (Aug. 9); The Alabama (Aug. 16). They lead up to Travers Day (Aug. 23), a local holiday of sorts, a reminder to this minor-league region that at least part of it constitutes The Bigs.
The rhythm will slow as the passing of days speeds up. August closes with another huge weekend with The Woodward and Forego (Aug. 30) and the Spinaway and Hopeful (Aug. 31), a Sunday featuring 2-year-olds and the promise of the coming season.
The last day of the track, a Labor Day Monday this year, is quiet, intimate. Regardless the temperature, you can sense oncoming crispness in the air. Tom Durkin, the longtime track announcer, will presumably be in the stands, enjoying his first day of retirement. There is always a different feel that Monday.
With the close of the day, summer will be over. The calendar lies, but the rhythm of the track never does.