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Saratoga racing fans continue tradition, gather at paddock

Saratoga racing fans continue tradition, gather at paddock

Opening day at the track
Saratoga racing fans continue tradition, gather at paddock
Marissa and Tim McCarren of Clifton Park watch the morning workouts on the apron on opening day of Saratoga Race Course.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Erin Compani and her nephew Lincoln Monge stood around the paddock at Saratoga Race Course as horses prepared for Thursday’s first race of the season.

For Compani, this was the usual. Her family has been going to the race course for about 40 years. She remembers standing by the same paddock as a child to watch the horses exercise up close.

And while her 3-year-old nephew came to Saratoga with a backpack full of horse toys, he was finally getting his first taste of the real deal.

“He’s at this fun age where he knows what’s going on,” said Compani, a Syracuse resident. “He understands. He’s excited to go over and watch the race go by.”

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Monge was excitedly yelling at the horses and updating onlookers on their whereabouts as he prepared for his first-ever race at the track. He’s part of the generations of fans who have lined up outside of the paddock to enjoy a closer look at the animals and greet jockeys. The paddock is a staging area for saddling horses, checking equipment and any last-minute fixes.

This is a great place for jockeys and owners to have final discussions before a race, but it's also a useful area for fans to watch the horses.

“As we, the grandkids, have all grown up, we would come over here and still watch,” Compani said. “We’d pick the horses we would like to win. Usually we’d pick by the color ofthe horse, the color of the saddle, anything like that.”

Ruth Conwell from Canaan, New Hampshire has been coming to the track for the last 15 years and stood against the paddock fence for the first few races of the day. This year, she brought her church friend Suzan Louzier. Louzier was a first-timer Thursday, but by the third race, had already picked up on some of Conwell’s traditions.

“She’s learning how to lose,” Conwell joked.

Conwell travels to the paddock from the clubhouse rail each race, and keeps an eye on the trainers when she’s waiting for the races to start.

“If he’s not wearing a suit, I don’t bother to bet on his horse” Conwell said. “If he comes out in his jeans for the first race, I know he doesn’t care. If I see the suit, I know he’s serious.”

She also takes a look at jockey silks. If they’re red, white and blue, Conwell tends to place a bet on their horse.

And if the horse poops, Conwell said it might be preparing for a good race.

“[The horse] took his mind off of whatever was bugging him, now he can win,” Conwell said. “I’ve been known to run up and place a second bet if I saw it happen.”

Conwell said standing by the paddock and being close to the horses also gives her a sense of credibility when the Kentucky Derby takes place in May, as she reminds friends she was “10 feet from” the horses in Saratoga.

Mike Novak of Tampa, Florida has been close to some Saratoga legends at the paddock.

He’s been visiting since he was 6 years old and once saw famed jockey Eddie Maple in the area. He said the paddock, despite expanding since he was a kid, is a great way to experience the action closer up.

“It’s fantastic.” Novak said. “You can go see the horses, that’s what it’s about. This is why we come.”

Compani is happy to now share that experience with her young nephew. She comes 10 to 15 times each season with her family, and said it's exciting to continue the tradition with a new horse-racing fan in Monge.

“I think this area is really important because it’s a little bit safer and less crowded when you have your little ones in the family with you,” Compani said. “But it's fun to get up close like if you went to any sporting event, you get to go up and see the athletes.”

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