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Sunny finale for Saratoga Race Course

Summer in Saratoga

Sunny finale for Saratoga Race Course

'I kind of enjoy the last day; we like to close the track down'
Sunny finale for Saratoga Race Course
Track fans watch the seventh race on a sunny Monday, the final day of the 2017 meet.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Mike LeClair knew it was going to be a good day. The sun was high, temperatures were low and he was with friends at Saratoga Race Course.

"But it's a sad day because it sort of means the summer is over," LeClair said, as he sat in the picnic area of Saratoga Springs' most famous landmark.

Summer in Saratoga is over for people who love the race track. Monday's Labor Day finale attracted a paid-admission crowd of 31,808 and ended a meet that will be remembered for several things:

  • A new record for all-sources wagering: NYRA officials said the 2017 meet ended with a handle of $676,709,490, beating the previous high set in 2015 by 4.4 percent. The total included $157,014,965 in on-track handle, a 3.4 percent increase over 2016. The Travers Day handle of $47,870,987 marked the second-highest Travers handle in track history.
  • West Coast's victory in the Travers Stakes, Saratoga's signature race. The "Mid-Summer Derby" also put the winners of the three Triple Crown races in the starting gate: Kentucky Derby champ Always Dreaming, Preakness winner Cloud Computing and Belmont victor Tapwrit. A convergence of Triple Crown race winners had not happened since 1982.
  • The 19 thoroughbreds connected to the race course that died during the spring and summer, some during training and competition.
  • Favorable weather conditions for most of the meet. The only true "lost" day took place this past Sunday, when a daylong rain and chilly temperatures kept many people away.

LeClair, who lives in Chester, Vermont, could joke about his motivation to make last wagers at Saratoga. Like thousands of others, he hoped some winning tickets would balance out a wallet full of losing tickets.

"You never make up for all the lost tickets," LeClair said, a few minutes before hitting a low-paying exacta, trifecta and superfecta in the fifth race.

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Other fans talked about their summer racing traditions, the horse mortality number and the oft-discussed notion about extending the meet.

-- "I kind of enjoy the last day," said Joe Steller of Hoosick Falls, who along with pal Richard Snyder sat in the shade of a maple tree across from the Fourstardave reserved seat pavilion. "We like to close the track down."

Steller is back to work Tuesday, as transportation supervisor for the Hoosick Falls Central School District. "It's the end of summer, beginning of fall," Steller said, of his first and only trip to the track this summer.

Petersborough's Snyder made 10 visits. Like LeClair, he was trying to catch up. "My plan is to hit a bunch of exactas and triples," he said.

-- "I don't like to see it happen," said Irene Alkes of Deerfield Beach, Florida, about the 19 horse deaths. "But it happens. It happens everywhere."

Added Alkes' friend Jane Vollmer of Saratoga Springs: "The horses that are not hurt are treated better than the backstretch workers."

-- Ron Anzalone of Niskayuna liked the prices on winning horses better than he liked the prices on Saratoga concessions -- $8.50 for a 32-ounce cup of lemonade, $6 for bottled water and $7 for a hot dog were on his complaint list.

"I paid $32 for two hamburgers and two non-alcohol drinks at the Shake Shack," added Jim Warczak of Niskayuna. "I was ahead at the track before I bought the hamburgers."

-- Jan Powers of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, tagged along on Monday's Saratoga ride.

"We always come on the last day," Powers said. "My husband [Dick] is a die-hard racing fan. We come because he likes to bet the horses."

-- Mechanicville's Bill Pickett conducted a personal search detail. "I'm looking for my money," he said. "I hope somebody's enjoying it."

Pickett did not think he could recoup all losses during Saratoga's finale. "It gets so easy on the last day," he said, jokingly.

-- Jennifer Newton of East Nassau, who breeds Standardbred horses with her husband, Robert, offered her take on the equine mortality rate at Saratoga.

"It's not the trainers, not the jockeys, not the vets," she said. "You have to go back to the beginning, to the breeders. The breeders are breeding subpar horses. They're taking horses that break down on the track and putting them in the breeding shed."

-- Ray Kimball of Middleburgh makes opening day, Travers Day and closing day. "Unfortunately, it's over," he said. "But it's a great day for the last one."

-- Drew Fiumano of Niskayuna would love to see a Saratoga meet that begins during early July.  "I enjoy the track," he said. "But I think there are a lot of pieces of the puzzle we don't know about."

-- Frank Capone of Saratoga Springs was more concerned about the way people are packed into the track during big days. Capone said for the Travers, he was in The Easy Goer seating section, an expensive seat with 10 people per table. "You had to apologize every time you moved," he said of the crowd. "I shouldn't have been uncomfortable and I was uncomfortable."

-- Bridget Gardner of Corinth continued a Monday tradition. She and co-workers from Wheatfields, a restaurant in downtown Saratoga Springs, spend most Mondays at the race track. "We love the whole scene and our kids love the horses," she said.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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