The scavenger hunt, if not the show, must go on.
A jovial young man in a sodden pink dress shirt, bowtie, rolled-up pantlegs and bare feet tried to get into the Saratoga Race Course jockeys quarters in search of a horseshoe to check off his bachelor party list Saturday afternoon. He was rebuffed by security and went on his merry way, even though the races were prematurely ended.
Inside, jockey John Velazquez was in a pressed dress shirt and slacks, ready to go home, even though he was supposed to be in silks getting ready to ride.
Instead, the New York Racing Association canceled the last six races, including two graded stakes, when the jockeys informed track management after the fifth of 11 races that the main track was unfit for racing because of torrential thunderstorms. Today's 1 p.m. card will go on as scheduled, but all turf races will be run on the main track.
It was the seventh time since 1998 that part or all of a card was canceled because of weather.
This time, the jockeys came off the track after the fifth race, seven furlongs on a dirt track whose condition had been downgraded to “sloppy,” and told NYRA management that the main track was unsafe and they wouldn’t ride on it. At around 4 p.m., track announcer Larry Collmus informed the crowd that the rest of the card was canceled, sending thousands of people to the exits under sunny skies. The track was buffeted with much worse storms later.
“When the rain came in, we lost the cushion in the racetrack, so it wasn’t safe. That’s it,” said Velazquez, a Hall of Fame rider who is the chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild board. “We didn’t know until we went out there [for the fifth race]. We came back to the room and had the conversation and didn’t think it was enough time for Glen [track superintendent Glen Kozak] to fix the track.
“There’s no place for the horses to feel comfortable, and you hit right to the bottom. That’s unsafe. They [NYRA] were good. When it comes to safety, that’s it.”
The Grade I Fourstardave will be redrawn and run next Saturday on the Alabama card, and the Grade II Adirondack will be run on Friday.
The last race canceled before Saturday was the 12th and last race on Sept. 4, 2011, because of a tornado warning, On Aug. 27 of that same year, the entire card was called off in advance of the effects of Hurricane Irene.
On Aug. 8, 2008, racing was canceled after the second race because a severe storm washed out part of the track, and on Aug. 2, 2006, a forecast of extreme heat prompted NYRA to cancel the entire card on a day when tracks all over the East Coast were canceling.
Heavy rain caused the last race on Travers Day, Aug. 28, 2004, to be called off; the same conditions caused the cancellation of the final two races on Sept. 2, 1998.
NYRA surely lost millions of dollars in betting handle. Through five races, an announced paid attendance crowd of 31,528 had wagered $2,027,600 on-track, and the all-sources handle was $8,100,192, with an attractive Arlington Million simulcast card from Chicago running concurrently.
Saturday’s storms actually got worse into the evening. Shortly after 7 p.m., Fasig-Tipton canceled the New York-bred yearling auction at the pavilion on East Avenue after a tree fell on one of the barns. No humans or horses were hurt. The scheduled two-day sale will will be completed in its entirety starting at 3 this afternoon.
Some trees fell in the backstretch barn area, which lost power, but it was restored early Sunday morning.
Saturday's card was already 14 minutes behind because of a rain delay when the skies opened up after the fourth.
Sent home early, most track patrons, like the bachelor party guy, shrugged, took it in stride and went about their Saturday.
Chandra Henderson, who lives three hours north of Saratoga Springs in Chateaugay, and about 15 family members had balloons and a “Happy Birthday” banner across the top of their tent in the backyard picnic area, in celebration of the second birthday of her niece, Lillian.
They cooled their heels while thousands packed up their tents and coolers and filed out through the Union Avenue gate.
“I can totally understand why they did it,” Henderson said. “We don’t want any problems with the weather and the horses. We had a wonderful day. We got together as a family, right?”
Another group, from Syracuse and Lowville, near Fort Drum, had their stuff packed up, had a hotel booked and were planning to visit the Yankee Distillery in Clifton Park.
“Surprised. We actually came very well prepared for the weather,” Jerry Geiss said, pointing to his wife Marguerite’s knee-high galoshes. “Never, ever expected they’d cancel races.”
“Now we’ve got a hotel, and we’re going to get cleaned up and have a good evening,” Mark Hitchcock said.
Kevin Galuski, the UAlbany assistant athletic director for equipment and operations, was at the track with his family and some former Great Danes athletes as part of a reunion from a Saratoga gathering five years ago.
Like most fans, he was philosophical about the cancellation and the reason for it. He even took it as something of a good omen, at least for fans of the New York Giants, who used to hold training camp at UAlbany.
“Everyone’s here to have a good time and enjoy the day, but the bottom line is the horses and jockeys have to be safe,” he said.
“Funny you should mention that , because coach [Tom] Coughlin actually had them out there in full pads that afternoon. And the track was closed, so we let coach Coughlin know that, and he let up a little bit on them. I stood out there in that heat, 104 degrees, and it wasn’t pleasant.
“But that was the year they won the Super Bowl.”