End of the road

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Canada geese returned to the infield of Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track Sunday morning, a pit stop on their migration and a place nearly vacant of its equine inhabitants sans for a few stragglers soon to join their fowl friends at warmer points south.

“Definitely more geese than horses,” said Dave Lynett, one of regular clockers who works the Oklahoma with Joe Williams and Bob Hamlin.

The geese indeed outnumbered the horses on the final day of offseason training at the Oklahoma and people did, too. The final day’s work tab included just five names, all horses trained by Jim Bond, and only about twice that number trained on a dry, sunny and crisp mid-November morning in upstate New York.

“That’s all she wrote,” Bond said after training his final set at little before 9 a.m., a pair that included the promising 2-year-old Tizway gelding Our Way.

The remaining members of Bond’s string, housed just off the grounds of Saratoga Race Course’s main track on Gridley Street, will now either head to Florida or Belmont Park. Nearly all the other offseason trainees – which numbered in the hundreds this spring, summer and fall – were already gone this week.

The New York Racing Association opens the Oklahoma for training from April 15 to November 15 and the track’s closure brings a sense of closure to what proved to be an exhilarating year in upstate New York. Plenty of winners downstate at Belmont Park and Aqueduct this year called Oklahoma home for much of their year and of course the annual Saratoga meeting brought it’s own level of excitement and top-tier performances.

As the last remaining horses on the grounds went through their morning routines, Lynett and Williams, working together Sunday with Hamlin already done for the year, talked about the highlights of 2016.

“Today is the most memorable day,” Williams joked, when pressed for details.

Lynett, who works the gap on the main track near The Morning Line track kitchen during the meet, easily pinpointed his most memorable day.

“That morning with American Pharoah, I couldn’t believe all the people,” Lynett said. “The atmosphere that morning on the backside was unbelievable.”

A crowd estimated at roughly 15,000 turned out the morning before American Pharoah’s run in the Travers Stakes – where he finished second to Keen Ice – to watch the Triple Crown winner gallop. The atmosphere was electric when the colt made the short walk from the barn to the racetrack. Williams missed it, since he was at his usual post in the Oklahoma clocker’s stand.

“I wish I could have seen that,” he said. “Him showing up here was big. I wish he could have won. But I guess he proved it in the Breeders’ Cup.”

The three clockers did get to see plenty of other winners prepare for engagements – stakes and otherwise – for long stretches during the 2015 season at the Oklahoma. The group includes Saturday’s Grade 3 Red Smith Handicap winner Mr Maybe, who trained with Chad Brown’s string in Saratoga after he was purchased privately late in the summer.

Others included Grade 1 Spinaway winner Rachel’s Valentina, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies; Lea, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile; and multiple Grade 1 winner and probable Eclipse Award winner Big Blue Kitten, third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“A lot of winners downstate were up here,” Lynett said. “And not just CB (Chad Brown) and Todd. Guys like Christophe Clement, Billy Mott, George Weaver, Mike Dilger, they all had winners that trained here. Even some of the smaller guys, too.”

They’re all gone now. Empty stalls are everywhere, leaves blow and bunch up against fences and the backs of barns. A few signs, a pitchfork, a rake and a stepladder hang on the back of one of Pletcher’s barns, the lone reminders of what was a bustling place just a few weeks ago.

Just before 9:30 .m. a walkie talkie crackled on a shelf in the clocker’s stand. The voice on the other end from the lone outrider, giving the “all clear” and some well wishes for a good rest of the day. Lynett and Williams packed up the radios, gathered their newspapers, stopwatches, notepads and called it a year.

NYRA’s Tim McKinsey stopped by with his dog to say his goodbyes for the year and off everyone went, to their cars, out the Union Avenue gate and into the five months of the year there is no training in Saratoga.

The only item of business was an obvious question. Now what?

“Nap, until April 15,” Williams joked.