Finish Line

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It’s a little past daybreak and Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track is filled with, well, not much.

It’s not the wee hours of the morning in the middle of the summer season, when the horses cut through the mist and fog to become the star attractions and focus of photographs that timelessly capture the bucolic scene. It’s not summer at all, rather late fall and approaching winter and it’s also the last day of offseason training here in Saratoga Springs. And it’s also barely 25 degrees.

Slowly but surely activity picks up on the Oklahoma grounds and horses and horsepeople make their way to the track, what’s left of them that is. What once numbered 700 or so horses are down to a scant couple dozen here for the Oklahoma season, which opens in early April and this year stretched to Friday.

Trainers give their instructions, riders their cues and even fewer onlookers out on this morning seem to pay more attention to keeping warm than keeping tabs on the activity on the racetrack. Not that doing so is too difficult.

Everything’s still very quiet by 7:45 a.m., nothing but a thin layer of frost on the dirt track. Clockers Dave Lynett and Joe Williams wait in the warmth of the clocker’s stand, their cars parked on respective ends of the small building at the track’s finish line. Commercial haulers and pickups with gooseneck trailers move about, ready to put some rubber to the asphalt and take the remaining horses out of town. Geese fly overhead. They’re headed south, too.

A spin through the barn area at about 8:15 and it’s the same story, barn after barn, shedrow after shedrow. Leaves and straw are strewn about, muck pits are filled and steaming, hoof prints frozen in woodchip and stone dust walking paths.

The horses still on the grounds are concentrated in the area around the first turn, a few stalls occupied in this barn, a few in another and a few more in another across the way. The stalls of the barns occupied earlier this spring, summer and fall by men named McGaughey, Mott, Clement, Zito, Weaver, Brown and Pletcher – who by the way collectively won 100 races during the 40-day Saratoga meet – are empty. Small tags with names remain above the doors in the barns that house Chad Brown’s sizable Saratoga string. Same story at Todd Pletcher’s barns, where the only reminders that they were once home to horses that helped him win his 10th Saratoga crown are a few stall signs still hung on doors. Black letters on a white background, “TAP” diagonally across.

The clockers are in their cars, out of the stand and out of the cold at 8:30, just before tractors make their first of three circuits of the track, opening it up with most of the frost melted off in spots not shaded by the leaf-less trees. There hasn’t been a recorded work in three days, a far cry from a typical late July or early August morning, say a Friday when dozens of turf works alone come after training on the dirt is done.

“It’s going to pick up soon,” Lynett says, the words “Saratoga Training Track. Track Fast” written on a blank piece of paper in his spiral notebook. “We’re already in better shape than last year [on the final day of training]. We’re way ahead.”

Training went to early afternoon last year, with horsemen and track workers forced to wait it out longer due to the frozen ground. It’s 9:07 before the first horse hits the track, one trained by Glenn DiSanto and ridden by exercise rider Stephanie Ravinski.

DiSanto is a Saratoga regular and his small string is headed downstate Saturday. Ravinski will join them, but she’s putting it off as long as she can.

“I’m not going until Sunday at 1,” she tells Lynett and Williams, who poke their head out of the clocker’s stand window to chat. “I’m dragging it out, staying here as long as I can.”

Activity is extremely light on final day of training at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track.

Lynett and Williams, both residents of Saratoga, say their goodbyes as people come and go throughout the morning, on foot and on horseback. They call out, “last day,” or “see you in the spring, Lord willing” as people pass.

“I’ll miss the people,” Williams said. “Nice folks and they all work hard as you know.”

Activity increases significantly – for this day at least – when Jim Bond arrives in his car and two horses he trains out of his private barn on Gridley Street make their way to the track. Mary Murray is there, too, to see Susie’s a Cowgirl and Mister Dooley, two homebreds she owns in the name of her Glas-Tipp Stable. They’re two of nine that breeze a half-mile and Mister Dooley gets the bullet for his move in :49.08.

Ten horses breeze in all, most after 10 a.m. when the track is finally starting to show some bounce. Bond, channeling his inner Michael Dickinson for a moment when he walks to the inside rail to check it out, before his first two breezers, opts to wait until later in the morning to get his last bit of work in before shipping his horses to Florida, New York or his farm in nearby Stillwater.

“I’ve been going since 5 over here, back and forth every 40 minutes,” Bond says with a laugh. “And I wound up having a second coffee and I shouldn’t have a second coffee.”

Meanwhile back inside the cozy clocker’s stand – not that it’s really needed to stay out of the now sunny and 45-degree temperatures by 10:30 – a small list is tacked to the back wall.

They’re reminders of things to do before closing up shop for the long winter, before reentry into the world and before the fast-approaching offseason to the offseason.

Just think, it’s less than five months until training reopens at the Oklahoma.

Lord willing, of course.