Throwback Thursday – April 9

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The New York Racing Association delayed the opening of Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma Training Track Wednesday. The news did not come as a surprise, with New York ravaged by thousands of cases of coronavirus and little movement on the racing front since Aqueduct suspended racing indefinitely March 19.

This year’s delayed Oklahoma opening won’t be the first, although a day or two here and there is certainly a far cry from what could be a significant interruption.

New York remains “On Pause” until at least April 29 and cancelations and postponements continue to roll in by the day, hour and minute. NYRA did not specific a day the training track might open but said it “is working with the New York State Gaming Commission and public health agencies to determine an appropriate date to safely open the Oklahoma for training and stabling.”

The Saratoga meet remains on schedule to open Thursday, July 16 and run through Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7.

So where does that leave us for Throwback Thursday? Well, we dug into the archives to find some of Tom Law’s stories about past openings of the Oklahoma. We couldn’t go back too far, since Tom didn’t come on board ST Publishing until late 2012 or arrive in Saratoga until April 2013.

The Oklahoma opened a few days before April 15 in 2013 and the few folks who braved the upstate New York stable area that year were met with the always-affable combination of cold temperatures and freezing rain.

Tom’s piece “Cold and damp” published April 12 set the scene.

“One-inch icicles (are they still called that when they’re that small?) are under power lines all over town,” Tom wrote. “A thin layer of glaze covers everything from fences to cars to grass. Where there isn’t that light ice there is water, lots of it, saturating lawns not too far removed from being covered in snow.

“A few buds are on the trees and it’s not quite green, but the occasional daffodil and tulip shoots are staring to show up.

“Spring is here in Saratoga Springs, although it might not feel like it the morning before the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga Race Course officially opens.

It’s Friday morning and the barn area at the Oklahoma is like a ghost town.”

The 2014 opening proved a stark contrast and the title of Tom’s piece, “Warm Welcome,” summed it up.

“No frost, snow or cold to deal with on this day, in fact it’s above 60 degrees by the time the track opens at 6 a.m. despite cloudy skies and a breeze,” Tom wrote. “The forecast says it will be a factor in 24 hours time, but at least on this opening day the place had a feeling of spring or even early summer.

“The first horse hits the track a little after 6:30, the lightest of exercise once around, and a couple women on ponies follow a few minutes later. An hour later, the morning papers read, the coffees refilled and only three horses doing anything of consequence.”

More of the same in 2015, when the first horse hit the track before 6 a.m. for the start of a six-month training run in Saratoga.

Tom spent much of that opening in the clocker’s stand, with the usual suspects Bob Hamlin, Joe Williams and Dave Lynett holding court, greeting early returnees and filling time reminiscing with tall tales.

“A little before 7 a.m. a radio in the clocker’s stand cracks, and a voice on the other end mentions the first of two schedule breaks will go as scheduled,” Tom wrote in his piece Spring at the Spa posted April 15. “Getting into the regular routine seems to be the reason. ‘One break for every horse,’ clocker Joe Williams joked, not much of an exaggeration considering there were less than 20 horses on the grounds when the day started.”

Works are never recorded on Opening Day at the Oklahoma and usually only a handful of horses in training take a trip around the oval.

Hamlin had a little fun with a local photographer at that 2015 opening, not that anyone really believed what he had to say.

“You just missed Affirmed and Alydar,” Hamlin joked, pointing to the empty racetrack.

Tom missed the 2016 and 2017 opening while down in Lexington covering the Keeneland spring meeting and the run-up to Kentucky Derby, but was back on the scene in 2018 and 2019.

Phil Gleaves joined the early offseason roster of trainers in 2018, shipping in his small string from Florida and no doubt regretted that move the moment he stepped out of his car and into his open shedrow.

Nine horses in training and a few outrider ponies arrived in Saratoga a few days before the 2018 opening, along with rain, ice and light snow that bumped things back a day to April 16.

“The traditional spring opening of the Oklahoma didn’t feature much activity at all, unless one counts ice falling off the inner and outer rails of the Oklahoma, ice being chipped off the steps of the clocker’s stand and one barn team setting up shop for the season,” Tom wrote in his piece Icy Opener that appeared April 16. “Barn 66 at the eastern edge of the Oklahoma grounds showed the most signs of life as trainer Phil Gleaves put the finishing touches on his set up with help from Sara Dunham.

The only hoof prints on the track that year belonged to those left by two outriders and their ponies.

“Even the activity in and around the clocker’s stand was light as Dave Lynett and Bob Hamlin held down the fort inside with space heaters keeping things warm as a light rain that eventually picked up considerably pelted the roof. ‘Somebody just texted me to ask how things were going,’ Hamlin said, laughing as he looked out at the expanse of the empty-for-now dirt and turf tracks.”

The 2019 opening came April 17 and again temperatures just barely hovered above freezing – are you sensing a trend here?

Longtime early arriver Kerry Metevier was on the grounds for the 2019 opening along with a new face – at least for the Oklahoma during the offseason – in Dave Cannizzo.

A fixture during the summer meeting, Cannizzo returned to his former spot in Horse Haven near the maintenance area last spring. He hadn’t been back since the mid-2000s when starting out with a couple horses and helping Greg Matties.

“I did that for a couple years. I always enjoyed it, being up here six months,” Cannizzo said in the piece Spring Break that appeared April 17. “It’s a better quality of life. Your quality of life, family, living, even expenses. The grocery bill here to there is like night and day. Everything. I can’t believe more people don’t do it. I guess it’s the drive, but NYRA pays the shipping.”

Cannizzo’s early arrival also gave him a leg up to be one of the first to appear in our Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour feature that runs daily in The Saratoga Special.

While it’s unclear when the Oklahoma will open for spring training we plan to be there, rain or shine, sleet or snow, wind or cold. Until then stay safe and count the days until Opening Day at Saratoga – T-minus 98.