Opening day everything we hoped for


SARATOGA SPRINGS – Thursday was about what I expected Thursday.

Opening day at Saratoga Racetrack. The day the fans came home.

Much had been said and written about that day. Would this actually happen? Could the coronavirus pandemic abate enough that the doors of the most popular racetrack in the country (yes, okay, maybe in the world) could possibly open and allow a mass of humanity to rush? You know, like the good old days?

If you were paying attention on Thursday, you know the answer. Saratoga is alive and well and settling into something called normal. And, God knows, we all need a lot of normality after what we’ve been through for the past 15 months.

When the last of 10 races took place on Thursday, the final tally was 27,760. I was off my prediction that the New York Racing Association would knock out 40,000. My selections on the 10 race opening day card were way off (I went 1 for 10)… so give me another loss on my crowd forecast.

I will improve in my choices, believe me. But no one associated with the NYRA went home disappointed by the throngs of people who showed up Thursday. The NYRA offered free grandstand entry to those vaccinated, but don’t get used to it. It was a one day affair.

Just having a human crush along the paddock to watch the horses being saddled was satisfying. Seeing little kids running around the apron during morning workouts under the supervision of their parents was a welcome sight. Kiaran McLaughlin, once one of the best trainers around, and now the jockey agent for Luis Saez, who had three wins on Thursday, got soaked in Saratoga early Thursday morning.

He stood beside his personal golf cart and looked up at the clubhouse where the lodge seats were filled with people. They were there to watch the horses stretch their legs and ride through the fog. McLaughlin couldn’t be happier to see this. He was here last summer when no one was allowed to do what Saratoga fans were doing on Thursday morning.

COVID crushed Saratoga’s summer plans for just about everyone last year.

Everything seemed fine all day Thursday.

“It’s just great to see people,” McLaughlin said as he continued to look around the clubhouse. “Back to normal. No masks. It’s unbelievable how many people are here. Everyone is excited. I’m excited.”

On the straight, Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano was equally jovial. He remembers last summer when he went to work here day after day with no one in the stands. It was hard.

“It was very depressing last year,” he said. This year could be great.

If Thursday was any indication, Castellano is onto something. Besides the large crowd, the Saratoga brand continued its healthy pace. Thursday’s all-source handle of $21,935,534 was a record high, beating the previous mark of $20,332,051 set in 2017.

In 2019, when the fans were there, the opening day crowd was 22,591; all sources handle $15,754,227.

If you didn’t already know, if Saratoga is open, people will come. And they will bet. The handle on track Thursday was $4,023,700.

One of Saratoga’s opening day traditions that seems to cheer up the crowd is when the field breaks off the starting grid in the first race. The 1 1/8 mile run, just in front of the grandstand, is great theater. Track announcer John Imbriale kicks off the meet with a “They’re gone to Saratoga!” and he invites the crowd to participate.

As soon as that happened, everything seemed fine.

Irad Ortiz Jr., the reigning champion jockey of the meet at Spa, was aboard the first winner of the meet, a 5-year-old horse named Charlie’sarchangel. He heard the noise, loved it too.

“Last year was very sad,” Ortiz said. “I really missed the fans. I feel very excited to get them back. I love this game and I love the crowd.

The feeling certainly seemed to be mutual. And they can all do it 39 more times before we lose the summer wind.

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