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As I pulled onto the dirt road that leads up to the Oklahoma training track, all the familiar settings started to surround me. To my left was the barn of Todd Pletcher, where many of his super star horses were poking their heads out of their stalls watching the crowd stroll towards the track. To my right there are horses coming off the training track and two horses getting baths after what I assume was a morning workout. At Saratoga, horses and humans live as one. When walking to the paddock, the horses walk through a long winding path that goes right through the massive crowds of people in the picnic area. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, as the horses enter the paddock with a “gladiator” like entrance. It’s their world, we’re just living in it! A carnival like atmosphere lines the outside of the track with unique food stops, home-brewed beer and live entertainment. Even before the races begin, you know you are in a special place. Add all of these delights to the fact that the best horses in the country run here day in and day out and you truly realize that this is horse racing heaven.
One of the coolest things about this trip was seeing the game through the eyes of a first timer. Sometimes a set of “new eyes” can give you a better appreciation for things, as well as a better understanding of how newcomers vision our sport. It began like it normally does…the “who do I bet on” questions. Then the “why did you tell me to bet that” as the horse I tipped them off on staggered across the finish line looking as though he’d rather be grazing in the pasture than running in the race. But after a while, things got technical. While watching horses walk to the paddock before the Curlin Stakes on Friday, my Aunt noticed that one of the horses was dragging his left hind foot. A nice pick up. The horse went on to finish second to last. On Saturday, my uncle noticed that Kauai Katie was limping after the race. We later found out that she had lost a shoe in the race which explained what he saw. These newcomers were picking up the game and noticing things that I hadn’t been able to pick up! Overall, everyone had a great time but there are certain stereotypes that horse racing will probably never get over. The idea that the races are fixed and the overall perception that big time horse racing fans (like us) are a little crazy, were thoughts that I could see running through their minds. Those are old perceptions that I don’t think horse racing will ever live past.
Something new I experienced this ‘Toga trip was the atmosphere of downtown Saratoga Springs. I’ve been there on a quiet winter afternoon, but never at night during the summer time. The town is vibrant! Old school retail stores and what seems like millions of small restaurants and bars line the streets. When you take exit 14 off Interstate 87 you really are stepping back in time. After checking with some of the finer dinning areas (soonest table was 9:45!) we settled into Dango’s Sports Bar and Grill. It wasn’t the classiest joint you’ve ever seen but the food was fantastic. After a Grilled Cheese Cheeseburger…yes a Grilled Cheese Cheeseburger, it was off to the bar scene. The name of the bar slips my mind but they let us drink on the roof so… automatically it became the most legendary bar of all-time. The drinks were great, the view was spectacular and the memories were plenty!
After a flying Friday night, it was time to get down to business Saturday. The card contained three graded stakes, including a spectacular field for the Jim Dandy Stakes. I had a pretty miserable Friday betting wise but did feel good about a couple of horses on Saturday’s card. The day started out very average until Favor Factor was able to win the seventh race. After a couple of unsuccessful show parlay attempts it was Jim Dandy time. At this point I was down $55 dollars for the trip. Anyone that follows my picks knows how high I was on Palace Malice so the bet was easily decided….$50 to win on #5 Palace Malice. The race unfolded much like I had anticipated. Palace Malice stalked the early pace and struck to the lead turning for home. What happened next though…I never could have imagined.
As Palace Malice struck the lead I jumped to my feet yelling for Mike Smith, or “Mikey” as I was calling him, to ride him home. Then out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a late charging horse. As I looked back I saw him…the large white blaze, and the long chestnut strides…I didn’t need to look at the saddle number, I knew that horse from anywhere! Will Take Charge, one of the Dudes’ local hero’s, was making a move. I grabbed the Dudettes arm and yelled, “WILL IS RUNNING HUGE!” Suddenly, my $50 meant nothing. Will had a chance and I was screaming him home. The race reminded me why I love the sport. For me, gambling is just something I like to do to make money but the horses are really why I’m there. Will Take Charge is “my” horse. I’ve watched him from the sales rings at Keeneland, to his maiden race at Saratoga, to his Stakes wins at Oaklawn and so on. I’ve watched him grow every step of the way. My bond with Will, and many other horses, is what makes horse racing special so special for me. Money is just money, but the bond with the horses is what really drives me to the track. I guess in the end the race worked out okay. Palace Malice won the race, making my betting experience a winning one for the weekend, and Will Take Charge finally showed his real talents once again as he finished a close second. Both will move on to the Travers and both are horses I’m very excited about!
So if you ever need a good reminding of why this is the greatest sport in the world, perhaps a trip to the Spa is what you need. Sometimes stuck behind my computer screen in Missouri, hundreds of miles from a race track, I lose that spirit that was recaptured last weekend. It’s nice to get out with the horses and the people, as well as meeting new friends (thanks Zenyatta John). Horse racing is entertainment for some, a way to make money for others, but for me it’s a love for the animals themselves. Some people will read this blog and roll their eyes but I know there are many that feel the way I do. The bond of a human and an animal is indescribable and runs rampant in our sport. As for the Saratoga Race Course, I’ll see you next year old friend! Enjoy the remaining days of this historic meet.
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