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Travers Day a party like no other

Saratoga Summer

Travers Day a party like no other

Ants, gray, cloudy skies and a little summer humidity could not dampen the enthusiasm for 46,557 who
Travers Day a party like no other
Nicole and John Pecori, of Ballston Lake, set up a makeshift bar in the backyard during Travers Day at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, August 23, 2014.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

The ants started to fly first.

“They just came out,” said Theresa Lee of Gloversville as she stood atop a picnic table bench at Saratoga Race Course, waving insects away from her face and hair. “I don’t know where they came from.”

V.E. Day started to fly a few minutes later — and people didn’t know where he came from, either. The longshot turned on late speed Saturday afternoon to catch crowd favorite Wicked Strong at the wire and win the 145th running of the Travers Stakes.

Scott Lee, Theresa’s husband, had been rooting for Wicked Strong as he tried to avoid the explosion of bugs.

“This is the story of my week,” he said. “Another loss.”

Not for everyone. Ants, gray, cloudy skies and a little summer humidity could not dampen the enthusiasm for 46,557 who showed up at the Capital Region’s largest outdoor summer party of the year.

The Travers Day on-track handle was $10,850,894, up from the $9.67 million wagered in 2013. Total handle was $39.9 million, down from the $41.3 million in pari-mutuel tickets purchased last year.

Women wore gowns and bright hats, men wore fedoras and bow ties and smoked foot-long cigars. Bunches took Saratoga’s version of the Ice Bucket Challenge — small plastic pails filled with ice cubes and bottles of water and beer.

People waited in line for coffee in the morning and restrooms in the afternoon. They gathered for birthday celebrations, bachelorette parties and family reunions. And they were happy to talk about their Travers adventures and escapades.

Peaches ‘n’ Booze

John Pecori and friends enjoyed morning rolls, peanut butter cups and peaches at a homemade Travers bar. But first, they enjoyed the traditional morning wait and rush for picnic tables.

Greg Graham of Waterford said he was out of bed by 1:45 a.m., out of the house by 3:30 and at the track by 4:30. Then he stood around with friends for 21⁄2 hours and watched the clock for 7 a.m. and the opening of the gates.

For once, Graham’s crowd did not resemble pelicans running from mountain lions.

“We weren’t allowed to run,” said Pecori, 41, of Ballston Lake. “We walked really, really fast.”

With an orange tent and space reserved for about 30 pals, Graham, Pecori and others set up their Travers bar, decorated with multi-colored saddle cloths. The peaches floated in a gallon mix of peach-flavored schnapps, ginger ale and orange juice.

“It’s our Travers Sunrise,” said Nicole Pecori, John’s wife.

“It has nothing to do with horse racing,” Nicole added, describing her day at Saratoga. “This is all of our friends getting together to have a good time. Horses are an added bonus.”

Graham watched people pass his Travers bar, some admiring the peaches and booze.

“We should be charging here,” Graham said. “We could make a killing.”

Fantasy Island

Clifton Park’s Alex Buniak and his friends combined reality and make-believe in the picnic section. Ten guys drafted favorites and longshots for 14 races, but also chose quarterbacks and wide receivers for an autumn fantasy football league.

“It seemed like a good fit,” said Buniak, the league’s commissioner, watching as the names of players like Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy and Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins were inked on large white poster board. “We have a lot of guys getting together for this. We saw a group doing it last year, it looked like a good time.”

Wicked Red

Queens resident Tariq Aziz and five friends from the city wore bright red T-shirts emblazoned with “Wicked Strong” in gold across the front.

“We just love the horse. We’ve been fans of Wicked Strong since even before the Wood Memorial,” said Aziz, 35. “And Rajiv (jockey Rajiv Maragh) is a personal favorite of ours.”

A bunch of New York sports fans rooting for a thoroughbred with Boston roots could be compared to snowflakes and icicles frosting the devil’s headquarters.

“That’s only in baseball,” offered Roy Samad, 37, about the celebrated New York-Boston animosity.

“And basketball. And football. And hockey,” corrected Aziz.

Others followed Travers T-shirt traditions. John Almansberger of Malta had family members outfitted in light green shirts that proclaimed, “Our 9th time stumbling to the finish line.”

“We don’t win very much, we just sort of stumble around,” Almansberger said. “We’re here, making it through another year.”

Stretch Call

Mike Brehm of Latham wasn’t playing cards in the small picnic section near the top of the stretch, but eight other family members and friends sat under a leafy tree and played a chaotic, Argentinian card game called Chancho.

“It’s a crowd-pleaser,” said dealer Tommy Martin, 23, of New York City.

Brehm was pleased by the crowd. He had about 30 people in his party and didn’t mind the cramped quarters; in fact, he seemed to relish them.

“That’s what makes it fun,” he said. “The more people the better. We know people from 15 tables here; we see them every year.

“It’s the Mid-Summer Derby,” Brehm added. “I can’t go to Kentucky, but I can drive 20 miles to go to Saratoga.”

Hat Squad

A black-clad Tigran Lulejin of Burbank, California, sat with three friends outside the At the Rail Pavilion, located between the finish line and the first turn. All four wore fedoras, and all four were glad to see horses up close, even if the thoroughbreds’ labors had just been completed.

“Pretty awesome,” said Lulejin, 23. “Good times, good people, good drinks, good food. But losing money.”

That was OK.

“A bad day at the track is better than a good day at the office,” said Jeff Manookian of northern New Jersey.

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