Scenes from The Spa
(First of two parts)
Race-goers beware, if the horses don’t get you, the hotel tab will. $399 at the Saratoga Hilton plus the 11.5 percent tax and $10 to park is $460.87. Bringing the Yorkie? Tack on another $50.
I stayed 25 miles north, next to a Six Flags Amusement Park in Queensbury. The room I’d reserved at a Country Inn cost $200, but they were overbooked and offered me a room in an old motel down the hill for $90 a night. It had no phone, no Internet, and no screaming kids bouncing off the walls, just a comfortable bed, a strong hot shower, and color television. Perfect.
After a good night’s sleep and a quick drive down I-87, I parked a few blocks from the racecourse and snuck into the track. It wasn’t my intention but I saw an open, unattended gate and stepped through into the paddock, where owners were admiring their horses and jockeys were awaiting riding instructions.
I didn’t exactly fit in, wearing cargo shorts and a Carolina Mud Cats T-shirt, so I hopped the fence into the crowd where a woman wearing a white cowboy hat, large sunglasses and orange fingernail polish said, “I told you ’bout that two ...”
She stopped and paused. “Oh. Not you. That race, that horse he took my high away. I was a little drunk.”
She said she was born in Trinidad, grew up in Brooklyn and knew the racing game because she’d been married to a jockey. “I divorced the man and kept the name, Alicia Legall, but my favorite jockey is Robbie Albarado.”
A curious choice, considering Albarado has twice been arrested for domestic assault. “It’s a tough life,” she reasoned. “You know why they have attitude? They’re always hungry. You ever been hungry? I was hungry for 10 years. Now, anybody tells me they’re hungry, I will feed them, and if they’re near my house I will take them home and make them dinner. I don’t care what they look like.”
It was the fifth race and I pointed to a horse named Ale. “Friend back home says he’s playing it,” I told her.
She shook her head. “Linda Rice is having a bad meet.”
She looked at the next horse in the race, Southern Tier, trained by Lisa Lewis. “That horse. Lisa Lewis is good, and a nice woman.”
She saw me taking notes and said, “You need a Twitter account. Twitter is where it’s at. I got 490 followers. You know who follows me? Sheiks and s**t.”
Legall was with the Jacobsen Stable, a Brooklyn outfit that races at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. An assistant trainer named Paul Wilson drove up in a golf cart and they drove off, back to Barn 4. I went and put a wager on Ale, who finished fifth. Southern Tier went off at 9-to-1 and finished second, paying $8 in the middle, $6.80 to show and back-ending a $93 exacta, the breaks of the game.
The next day I bought a grandstand seat for the $7 face value from a season ticket holder named Patricia Harr. She reminded me of Edith Bunker. “I hit the trifecta on Sunday,” she said. “Oh my God, I thought it was a miracle.”
As at any track, at Saratoga the riders are up at dawn exercising horses, either on the main track or across Union Avenue on the Oklahoma training track, where hoof beats portend the sight of thoroughbreds galloping out of the morning fog.
Early birds can enter the grounds at 7 a.m. and stake claims to picnic tables with tablecloths, coolers or even, on one table, a Loafer. “You can be safe saying there’s over a thousand,” Jeremy Wood said of the number of picnic tables that are sprawled under the oak trees. Wood is a member of the Carpenter’s Local 291, and was using a power drill to firm up the tables. “People drag ’em around and it loosens the bolts on the cross-bracings. We do all the maintenance. Anything needs to be fixed, it’s ours.”
It’s quiet and relaxed hours before post time. On the track apron, I turned and saw trainers in the grandstand clocking their horses’ workout times. In the afternoon, tractors smooth out the track surface like a baseball infield, but there’s no need in the morning and the dirt strip was trampled like a beach on a busy afternoon. Upstairs I sat in an owner’s box near the finish line. It was a magnificent view of the final furlongs, like looking down from the press box at the old Tiger Stadium.
Every race morning during the 40-day meet, breakfast is served over white linen in the trackside Terrace, $17 for a buffet of brown sugar pancakes, tomato quiche, bacon, scrambled eggs and sweet potatoes with herbs. While they dined, morning announcer Mary Ryan invited people to join her in the winner’s circle where the winning horse, jockey, owner and entourage are photographed.
Near the weigh-out scale is a five-foot stand on which a cast metal bell is attached and rung exactly seven times and precisely 17 minutes before post time. Though its present use is merely tradition, Ryan said it was once used to notify jockeys of how much time was left to talk with trainers and leave the paddock.
She wondered why it was rung seven times and went to Tom Durkin, the track announcer whose license plate reads SPAAAAA. “Mary,” he told her, “Saratoga is a gambling town and seven is a lucky number.”
The grounds are decorated with flowers, large pots of hydrangeas, dusty millers, waxed begonias and petunias. “A lot of beds need to be watered every day,” said Janice Brown, who’s worked in the track’s greens and landscape department for 14 years. “Usually we work hardest on Tuesdays, the dark days, but it’s a lot of work.”
The racing begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until after 6 p.m., providing food sellers with ample opportunity to satisfy empty stomachs and fill the cash register. Most of the fare is of good quality, but the $10 Big Beef at the Putnam Market is made of two flinty slices of ordinary roast beef in a cold whole-wheat wrap.
The lobster roll is much better. It cost $10 and is filled with fresh claw leg and knuckle meat. “We’re having a special foot-long on Saturday, 60 of ’em for $16 each. When they’re gone, that’s it,” said Jim Caveretta, who described himself as “Owner, cook, bottle washer, delivery boy and SOB.”
The cheeseburger and fries from the Post Veranda Shake Shack passed muster, and the popcorn at “doc popcorn” near the Carousel is excellent, hot and fresh; I woofed down a bag each day.
The Manhattan clam chowder from the food stand overlooking the tote board is hot and loaded with — you guessed it — clams, and I’d finished a cup when Mike King spotted me, cigar in hand. The retired Athol girls’ basketball coach was with his brother Roger King, Greenfield’s assistant postmaster, and Athol’s retired coach, athletic director and administrator Kent Strong. “This is our 40th year. Can’t beat it. We’re staying in Lake George,” he said.
My mission during the four-day stay was to come home with a load of bobbleheads. Fourstardave won at least one race at the Spa between 1987 and 1994 and became known as the Sultan of Saratoga. When he was put out to pasture, the track presented him with an edible key to the city. Last Sunday it posthumously honored him with his own bobblehead.
It was the track’s first bobblehead giveaway in several years and I didn’t want to get shut out. In 2007, the “spinners” gobbled up replicas of Angel Cordero Jr. by paying three-dollar admissions and getting back in line for more coupons. It’s an arduous process but effective. I saw one guy carrying an armload of Angel Cordero’s that were stacked to his chin.
People sell them on eBay and other online markets. A Google search revealed the Fourstardaves are already selling for between $13 and $20. My intent was simply to give them to friends and family, earmarked for Christmas, but most are already gone.
This year people got one coupon at the gate and were directed to a booth under the grandstand to buy multiples of five at a time. The gates opened at 10:30 a.m. and the stampede began, reminding me of a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One kid stumbled and fell, bloodying himself.
The fellow next to me said he needed six. “We were at a party and I drew the short straw.”
“My wife names every room after a horse and she wants this for her Fourstardave room,” said another.
Coupons in hand, redemption tents were at the top of the stretch and behind the picnic area. I handed 16 coupons to a worker, who sliced open a large cardboard box and I took the 8x6x3 inch packages and stashed them in a Northfield town trash bag.
On my way back to the car a someone sneered, “Got enough?”
Excessive, yes, but if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Tomorrow’s giveaway is Saratoga baseball hats. Get there early or the spinners will ruin your day.
NEXT WEEK: The fine art of losing
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.