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Racing season begins at Saratoga

Racing season begins at Saratoga

Fans never get tired of opening day
Racing season begins at Saratoga
Mike Dack of Waterford discusses his tradition of wearing pink shirts on opening day of Saratoga Race Course.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Waterford's Mike Dack was in the pink Thursday.

Horses were on the track at Saratoga Race Course. Dack and his friends celebrated the first day of racing by wearing pink shirts in Saratoga's spacious backyard.

"Opening Day is for Pink Shirts" read a large sign posted near the group's picnic tables.

Men in pink joined men in suits, shorts and sandals and women in gowns, ornate hats and summer blouses as Saratoga Race Course opened its 2019 meet on one of the earliest dates in its history. According to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the 1882 meet also started on July 11.

An announced paid attendance of 22,591 showed up for 10 races on a cloudy, humid, sometimes rainy afternoon.

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On-track handle was $3,087,839. All sources handle was $15,754,227.

As horses were led into the starting gate in front of the grandstand for the first race, course announcer Larry Collmus coached fans to shout "And they're off at Saratoga!" as soon as thoroughbreds burst from the gate.

Horses burst. Thousands joined Collmus with the traditional cheer to open the racing season at 1:02 p.m.

Clouds burst later. Shortly after 4 p.m., heavy rains cleared the front apron in front of the grandstand. Still, weather did not keep traditionalists from their opening day appointments.

Dack's crew started small. 

"What happened was myself and a couple other guys who are here have been coming since 2000," said Dack, 60, whose pink, Hawaiian-style button-down glowed with color. "Maybe three years in, I happened to wear a pink shirt, so everybody started to bust my chops about it.

"The following year, they all wore pink shirts," Dack added. "So it then became, 'Opening day, we're wearing pink shirts.' All the guys, whenever they come up, we wear pink shirts."

The pink team now numbers about 20. "The wives kind of hijacked it," the jovial Dack said. "They were girlfriends at the time, they weren't even wives."

The newcomers have limited influence. The guys say they are not allowed to wear pink on Opening Day.

"If they do, they get kicked out," Dack said. "And they have to have the secret handshake and they could never pull it off."

Small and large parties were in progress all over the course grounds.

John Simoni entertained friends Paul Grippo of Scotia, Jim Martin of Latham and Pete Corso of Albany in a clubhouse box near the finish line. Simoni, a former state racing commissioner who lives in Ballston Spa, said he has made most opening days for the past 60 years.

"It's an exciting day," said Simoni, 87. "It's hard to explain, but if you love racing, you love opening day."

Grippo shared Simoni's excitement for the summer premiere.

"It starts in June, you start thinking, 'Opening day, opening day, we're going to go again,'" he said. "It's exciting. We get along great, John and I have known each other for 60 years. It's just a happening. It's like a birthday -- you don't want to miss one."

Opening day is always a must for Frank Cipriano, who lives in Saratoga Springs. He has been around for the last 40 openers.

"My grandparents started taking me to Belmont Park when I was five years old," said Cipriano, 72. "When I moved to Saratoga, it was a natural thing for me."

Cipriano offered a simple reason for his opening day attendance.

"It's like every other day," he said, seated with relatives on the apron in back of the grandstand. "If they run 40 days, I'm here 40 days. If they run 20 days, I'm here 20 days. I'm here every day.

"It's the greatest thing to be here on opening day," Cipriano added. "It's the same thing as the first day of spring or the last day of class when you were in the fourth grade and you knew you had summer vacation."

Cipriano likes the new schedule. The New York Racing Association's new plan is to start the meet earlier, provide eight racing weekends and take both Mondays and Tuesdays off. In the past, Tuesday was the only dark day.

"It gives people, including us from Saratoga, more time to enjoy everything the city has to offer on the other two days," he said.

Lisa Hunter, 53, of Somerville, N.J., formerly of Clifton Park, knew friends would find her gathering spot in the backyard. A large, multi-colored umbrella marked her position.

Like others, Hunter and company have built an impressive opening day attendance streak -- 30 years. "It's tradition, it's family, it's friends, it's just fun," she said.

"It's bigger than Christmas," she added. "It's a time for all of us to get together."

People bought into the new 1863 Club, NYRA's $30 million investment at the clubhouse turn. The three-story facility features an aid-conditioned restaurant, club and private suites.

"Opening day is a day of nostalgia and fun," said Mary Radford of Newburgh, who was in "The Rail at the 1863 Club," the first-floor restaurant. "It's dressing up and having a good time."

For Charlie Barringer and his friends, nostalgia was part of the day.

Clifton Park resident Barringer, a longtime track man who answers to "Saratoga Charlie," invited several dozen pals and family members to celebrate his 68 years in racing. Photo collages of Barringer decorated a picnic spot in the backyard.

Barringer and company had special interest in the fifth race. Charlie's horse Ghostghostghost was one of the entrants. "He doesn't like the rain," Barringer said.

Ghost missed the heavy showers. But he had to settle for sixth place.

The 10th race started just before 6:30 p.m. in a steady rain that finished the crowd. A couple dozen gathered at the rail to cheer three horses that ran the race on a sloppy track.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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