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What you need to know for 07/21/2017

Oklahoma track the morning place to be

Saratoga Summer

Oklahoma track the morning place to be

For some people, morning sun is best in Saratoga Springs.
Oklahoma track the morning place to be
People gather to watch workouts at the Oklahoma Track on July 17.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

For some people, morning sun is best in Saratoga Springs.

Dan Kell is one of those people. He enjoys the early orange ascension over the Oklahoma training track — part of the Saratoga Race Course complex — and the slow dissolution of mist and dew.

“One of the rituals I have is getting up early in the morning and coming to the Oklahoma,” said Kell, who lives in Hilltown, Pa. “I just enjoy the dawn, the horses, the sound of a horse breezing, breaking from the gate, that whole thing. It’s quiet, the riders are out here. ... Oklahoma is one of the most beautiful places in Saratoga.”

The Oklahoma experience is a favorite for people who want to watch equine athletes gallop, jog and lope. They bring their cameras and stand close to the rail that circles the one-mile track — even though some signs request a 12-foot clearance. Horses exercise from April through October; all sessions are free of charge.

Sounds come with the sights. “Get up there, you little rat,” an exercise rider good-naturedly admonished his mount, as the horse veered close to the rail during a recent 55-degree morning. Riders routinely say hello to spectators as they casually ride to the top of the stretch. Practice begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends around 11. The track closes at 7 and 9 a.m. for 30-minute reconditioning sessions.

Some early birds want to climb the steps of the new Whitney viewing stand, which stands at the Oklahoma’s eighth pole. The reddish wood, three-story structure with ornate staircase opened last year as the New York Racing Association celebrated the 150th anniversary of thoroughbred racing at Saratoga.

“We’re trying to encourage the public to come here, get a closer look at the track, learn a little bit about the history,” said Jim Melia, a NYRA employee and guide for the viewing stand. The stand itself is a nod to the past — a replica of a judge’s stand that stood over Saratoga Race Course during the late 1890s.

The “Oklahoma” name also comes from history. Local lore says some horsemen of the early 1900s grumbled about the long distance they had to travel from the main track to the practice facility. They would compare the hike to traveling to Oklahoma, a long journey then and now.

Dan Kell moves around for his views. “Over here, you see the bad boys, the bad girls, the rawness and power of the horses,” he said, “but you also see what it takes to get out on the big track.”

Manny Carbalho of Warwick, R.I., brought family and friends to Saratoga for the races and to Oklahoma for the morning works. “If you come here from Rhode Island and if you like horse racing, whether you bet it or not, how can you miss this?” he asked.

Serious photographers want dramatic and dynamic scenes from morning runs. Casual picture clickers prefer cellphone selfies and hope they can capture themselves with galloping thoroughbreds in the background.

Connecticut teenagers Erin Feeney and Katie Cronin were trying to pull off the exacta last week. But they were getting the shutout.

“Sometimes,” said Mary Beth Cronin, Katie’s mother, “the horses don’t always cooperate.”

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