Nicole Arciello and Patrick Battuello both grew up going to Saratoga Race Course.
"My parents took me every year as a kid," Arciello recalled.
The Colonie couple still visits the track, but not to place bets, watch horses or socialize.
They go to protest — to draw attention to the number of thoroughbred horses that die each year in training or races. They stand outside with other protesters, holding up signs that list the names of horses that have died at race tracks throughout the country.
Longtime animal-rights activists, Arciello and Battuello believe the time has come to end horse racing, and they hope to convince bettors to take their business elsewhere.
One of the flyers they distribute, titled "A Plea to Bettors," asks, "In a landscape that abounds with other gambling options — casinos, lotteries, real sports involving autonomous human beings — hasn't the time at long last arrived to let the racing horse be?"
In a region where horse racing is a big part of the summertime culture, it would seem that the odds are stacked against Arciello and Battuello.
Part of what made me interested in meeting them was their willingness to highlight the issue of horse racing deaths in a place where the sport has such a long history and drives so much of the local economy. It certainly sounded like a lonely crusade.
And perhaps it is.
But what's striking about Arciello and Battuello — who documents horse racing deaths on his website, Horseracing Wrongs — is how optimistic they are.
Their protests are drawing more people and getting more coverage, and more people seem to be talking about deaths at the track. Just last week an acquaintance told me he stopped going to the track two years ago out of concern for horses.
I'm not ready to call for an end to horse racing or the closure of Saratoga Race Course.
But I do think Arciello and Battuello are doing valuable work and that their arguments are persuasive, in part because 12 horses have died at Saratoga Race Course this year.
People can decide for themselves whether they're comfortable with this figure, but it isn't a figure I'm comfortable with.
I've enjoyed going to the track in the past and placing $2 bets on horses with funny names.
But when Battuello asked me "Did you know that 2,000 horses are dying on American tracks each year and that they're dying for $2 bets? How do you justify that?" I found myself nodding my head and asking myself "Yes, how do you justify it?"
Earlier this month, the New York Racing Association spoke of its commitment to equine and human safety. Spokesman Patrick McKenna told The Gazette that the organization is making "significant improvements and enhancements to the facility with an eye on improving the quality and safety of our racing operations."
This might be enough to placate some people, but it's not going to placate committed activists who believe horse racing is wrong.
"(Horse deaths) are inevitable, and they're going to happen regardless of the improvements they make," Battuello told me.
He ticked off reasons why horses will continue to die: They're immature, and their bodies are not fully formed. They are injected with drugs that keep them running through pain and injury. They're whipped and pushed onward by jockeys, sometimes past their breaking point.
Battuello became interested in the treatment of race horses about five years ago, while writing an animal-rights blog for the Albany Times Union. There wasn't a lot of information available on the topic, so he began researching it himself.
"I felt like horse racing needed someone to fill that niche," Battuello said.
In 2014, the couple began protesting outside the track.
"We had five people on the corner of Union and East," Arciello said. She estimates that this summer their protests draw about 75 people.
Battuello and Arciello aren't new to protest.
They protested the treatment of elephants used by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey whenever the long-running circus, which retired its elephants in 2016 and closed down in May due to declining attendance, came to Albany.
"Ringling gives us hope," Battuello said. "We know protesting works. Ringling Bros. is gone because of protesters."
Horses have always died at the track.
What's new is the attention these deaths are drawing, and the growing awareness that horses die every summer at Saratoga Race Course. That awareness and attention is due partly to the efforts of Arciello and Battuello, who have taken up this cause and believe they can convince people to join them.
"We're just trying to plant seeds," Battuello said.
"If we're not out there protesting, people aren't going to know something's wrong," Arciello said.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.