Same Time Next Year: A View of Saratoga’s Opening Day
Jeff Deitz, a psychiatrist in Connecticut and New York, has written about sports and personal psychology for the New York Times and contributed to the Times' horse racing blog, The Rail. Deitz has been a regular at Saratoga for many years.
When the backstretch entrance for the first training set opened at 5:30 AM this past Friday, Saratoga Race Course probably looked like it did a century ago. For me, it felt like returning to sleep-away camp, reconnecting with friends I see once a year. With low-lying clouds clinging to the horizon, it would be another hour until morning sun peeked through the trees and coated the straightaway and far turn in soft yellow. Walking between the rows of barns, each draped with insignia pennants of its resident trainer, I smelled more than hay and manure. For as much as I sensed the timelessness of Saratoga, there's a gentle breeze of change in the air, which is a good thing for the sport.
Hard to qualify let alone quantify, it wasn't until several hours later that I began to get a handle on what was same and what was different. By 11:30 a.m., Karen and Buddy Cornhauser and the rest of their extended family and neighbors from Latham, NY had pitched their open-air tent on the far side of the walking ring – in one of the few shady spots of what would turn out to be a sweltering afternoon.
“Miss opening day at Saratoga?” exclaimed Buddy as he unloaded two gigantic coolers. “Of course not. It's what we do,” he said, indicating eleven piebald chairs loosely arranged in a circle. “We've been doing it for twenty years.”
￼“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“It's a tradition. The kids grow up. We get a little older. So do they. It's nice to catch up with everybody. See that camping chair with the Dr. Pepper can in the armrest? That's Karen's cousin Duane. ‘Dee Wayne,' we tease him because he's got part of a horse that's running here sometime early next week; at least that's what the trainer says.”
Not far over Buddy's shoulder you could see the white fence demarcating the paddock, inside which the horses for the first race would be saddled in less than an hour. There was a time when the closest Dee Wayne would ever get to the inside of that fence was when he hung over it watching the Firestones and the Phippses discuss god knows what rich people discuss in the walking ring. But that was then. Saratoga may look like it did, but the times are changing.
Having found my seat inside the sixteenth pole, I began chatting up a well-dressed couple sitting next to me. Soon the husband mentioned he owned a share in True Blue Nation, West Point Thoroughbreds' entry in the Schuylerville Stakes for two year old fillies later that day. True Blue Nation, a nicely-bred daughter of Bluegrass Cat, went under the gavel as a yearling for $85,000 at the Fasig-Tipton July Kentucky sales. Split that four ways and throw in training costs ￼and vet bills, and it's still far less than a hundred shares of Apple. That's $85,000, not $850,000 like it was in the roaring eighties and nineties.
Soon a man in a blue polo shirt with the West Point yellow star logo approached. It was Tom Bellhouse, COO of West Point, who had come to welcome his clients. Later Tom told me that one of the things he likes best about Saratoga is getting a chance to catch up in the flesh with West Point's far-flung roster of trainers.
That morning feeling almost made it to consciousness. By then it was off to the paddock. The first race of the season was a claiming optional allowance with a fat purse of $87,000. Talk about a present for Saratoga's 150th birthday. Many in the full field of 12 had raced for a $25,000 claiming tag last year, one for $15,000 as recently as April. Others were classier, including the favorite, a Hard Spun colt named Hardest Core. He fetched $87,000 at Keeneland in 2011.
At 12:30 p.m., some of the usual suspects started filing in: several well-heeled— three inches, on average —thirty- and forty-somethings in designer dresses; tanned men in linen suits with shaven heads beaded with perspiration; marquee trainers, most of whom looked like they came straight from church.
Although there is a saddling shed for those preferring seclusion, most horses saddle outside at Saratoga, near a tree with the post position tacked to its trunk. The temperature in the mid-90's, I headed for the shadiest spot around: a leafy oak ￼where number six, Royal Blessing, a $25,000 yearling New York statebred son of Kitten's Joy, was being walked. Several young men and a couple who could have been their aunt and uncle were huddled. Thus, I beheld the owners of Royal Blessing – High Horse Racing – one of the innumerable racing partnerships that have blossomed in upstate New York and around the country.
When trainer Tom Albertrani and jockey Jose Lezcano approached the crew thoughtfully, I sensed the respect and excellent customer service High Horse Racing was receiving, just like my seatmates had received from West Point's upper management. That's when the morning feeling took on words. There's an egalitarian flavor at Saratoga; something like parent-teachers' night at a New York City prep school that prides itself on diversity and non-elitism.
In the paddock, trainers palled around like fraternity brothers at a Harvard homecoming, but the conversations sounded the same as when my wife and her college friends reconnected at a wedding. Women talk about their kids; guys—certainly the ones at Saratoga—talk about their horses.
“Say, how's that chestnut mare of yours doing?” one trainer said across his shoulder to a former assistant. “Will she be ready to race this fall?”
“I like your horse in the fifth tomorrow,” another said to his rival. “Mine should get a better run at him this time. He got stopped pretty bad in his last when the gray dropped in at the eighth pole.”
Soccer dads at a track meet, each not-so-secretly hoping their child makes it into The Olympics.
Tradition? Yes. That's Saratoga's claim to fame. Its reputation as a meet-up place where the rich and famous summered and partied is well-earned. But at the track as in society, class distinctions are becoming blurred.
As it turned out, Hardest Core came from last to first to win the opener. After the race, I asked winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin what he liked the most about the people part of Saratoga. “That's easy,” he said. “I get to meet up with fellow trainers from across the country. When else can I catch up with D. Wayne Lukas?”
The Cornhausers were just as happy to see each other as McLaughlin felt about seeing the real D. Wayne. Saratoga's like one big family reunion, and the family circle is growing.