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What you need to know for 01/16/2018

Travers Day: Upset at the wire

Saratoga Summer

Travers Day: Upset at the wire

V.E. Day, going off at 19-1, stormed down the stretch to nose out Wicked Strong at the wire and win
Travers Day: Upset at the wire
The Big Beast (7) squeezes out a victory in the King's Bishop on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

V.E. Day, going off at 19-1, stormed down the stretch to nose out Wicked Strong at the wire and win the 145th running of the Travers Saturday at Saratoga Race Course. Both horses were trained by Jimmy Jerkens.

Tonalist was third in the $500,000 race.

Leading up to the signature race of the Saratoga meet, and one of the premier stakes races in the country, Artemis Agrotera cruised to win the $500,000 Ballerina by six lengths. Meanwhile, The Big Beast was all that, "just gobbling up the ground" in the final furlong, as race caller Tom Durkin said, to win the $500,000 King's Bishop on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

Earlier Abaco came on late to take the Grade II Ballston Spa.

The day has featured a packed house and loud crowd, except for a moment when tragedy struck. The festive mood was broken in the fourth race, when Ludicrous, trained by Chad Brown and debuting in a maiden race, broke down in the stretch, got up and collapsed. Barriers were held up to block the crowd's view as the horse was euthanized on the track. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. appeared uninjured.

With the Travers Stakes (5:46 p.m.) more than seven hours away, Saratoga Race Course quickly filled up with lawn chairs, available picnic tables were claimed and the line at Dunkin’ Donuts remained a steady 50-plus deep. The 7 a.m. mad dash for tables was a memory.

Mostly there was calm, a whiling away of the morning. An intense handicapping session was in progress at one picnic table. New York Racing Association workers mowed the infield turf. A game of beer pong was in progress by 8:30 a.m. (It was noon somewhere.) By 11:15 a.m. the trackside apron was packed. Officials expect a crowd somewhere north of 45,000.

In the backyard, nowhere was it more tranquil Saturday morning than a patch of 130 picnic tables, with tablecloths, nearly empty and off-limits a couple of hours after the gates opened at 7 a.m. You had to pre-order those, at a $100 a pop. (They do come with some cool little model canoes, red and white.) The tables sold out. “Customers were willing to pay for the convenience,” NYRA spokesman John Durso Jr. said. No need to run.

“For us it was worth it,” said Sean Spoor of Saratoga Springs, who had a contingent of 10 arriving from out of town. “I know friends who left at 3 (a.m.) just to get in line. I didn’t want to deal with the chaos.”

Ah, the chaos.

There is the Running of the Bulls, the Run for the Roses and even the Freihofer’s Run for Women. Then there is the Run for Picnic Tables, a Travers tradition.

The crowd, anxious but not overly rowdy, pressed against the outer iron Gate A early Saturday morning. Some had been there for a couple hours. A half hour before the gates were supposed to open, Lt. Frank Borbolla of NYRA security wandered over with a plea/command.

“When I open the gate,” he told the first several rows, “I don’t want to get crushed. Please walk.”

As the hour neared 7 a.m., throngs lined the street on Union Avenue. Inside, workers passed each other with buoyant smiles and “Are you ready?” encouragement. Security eyed the growing crowd.

John David and Justin Gershon, NYRA fire marshals and EMTs, stood near Gate A with a wheelchair and medical bag at the ready. Face plants and mild trampling at the annual Run for Picnic Tables are not uncommon.

“Plus we get to pick up all the loose change,” David added.

It’s 6:45 a.m. – 11 hours before post time for the 145th running of the Travers Stakes – and the outer gates open. “Hey-Hey-Heys” can be heard among the crowd surge. The inner gates won’t open for another 15 minutes. Well, almost.

Borbolla makes another repeated request.

“Don’t push through the turnstiles. They have to release it,” he repeats again and again three minutes before the gates are supposed to open. “I don’t want anybody getting hurt.”

At 6:59 a.m., a teen/20-something pushes through a gate. Again the crowd surges. NYRA opens the gates a little early to cut down on the possibility of chaos.

Then … the annual chaos. People enter the gates and dart left or right, frantically rushing to claim a table or spot.

“No running. No running. No running,” Borbolla repeats as people run by. He smiles. A crowd's gotta do what a crowd's gotta do.

Not Susanne Dwyer of Troy. She and Laurie Alix of Watervliet walk through the gate as if on a Sunday afternoon stroll. Fifty or so feet ahead they put their stuff down next to the horse path.

“This is our spot,” she said. “It’s always right here.”

Five minutes after the gates open everyone is strolling. Tables are claimed, tents are being unfurled. The EMTs pack up without needing to tend to any wounded. An annual tradition is in the books. All that is left is many hours before they run the other Travers race.

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