Icy Opener

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The horses returned to Saratoga Race Course over the weekend – all nine, and a couple outrider ponies – and so did the rain, ice and light snow, forcing a slower start to the first official day of training on the Oklahoma Training Track.

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. 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.

Gleaves, a veteran horseman who saddled Wise Times to victory in the 1986 Travers, arrived in Saratoga over the weekend with his string from Ocala. He’s a former Saratoga regular, but spent many years in South Florida with family commitments. Now freed up a bit, Gleaves is back and hopes to return to a routine of spring, summer and fall in Saratoga and winter in Florida.

“Great memories, fond memories,” Gleaves said as he washed some water buckets and showed maintenance workers some spots in front of his stalls that needed fill. “My son Schuyler, who was then 3 years old, we moved down there to Miami and I wanted to keep him in a school down there. Now he’s a freshman in college. That afforded me some time and the luxury to do this again. Now I’m able to come back and go back to the old routine.”

Gleaves’ string will eventually grow to 10, nine 2-year-olds and an older horse.

They didn’t train Monday, just settled into their stalls under warm blankets and dug into their hay nets.

The only hoof prints on the track were those left by two outriders, who took a lap at a walk at about 9 a.m. and another about a half-hour later.

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 action will pick up considerably in the weeks ahead. Typically many of the larger stables on the New York circuit – horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, George Weaver, Nick Zito – ship sizable strings around May 1. The numbers will grow in the weeks and months after that, up to full capacity on the Oklahoma and main track side by Opening Day of the Saratoga meeting Friday, July 20.

Monday felt far from the warmth and sunshine that July brings, more like the weather the last time horses trained on the Oklahoma back in mid-November.

Horses who spent significant parts of the offseason training on the Oklahoma are very much a factor on the Triple Crown trail this winter and spring. Seven of the 19 top point earners based in the U.S. spent time at Saratoga last year, including champion and Blue Grass winner Good Magic, Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, Florida Derby winner Audible and Gotham winner Enticed.

Good Magic trained in Saratoga from the spring to late September, Vino Rosso from September to early November, Audible from summer to late September and Enticed from the early summer to late September, primarily on Godolphin’s Greentree grounds adjacent to the main track. The others were undefeated Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon (spring), Flameaway (early July to mid-September) and Hofburg (spring to late October).

“This is the place to be,” Gleaves said. “I love it, love the history of it. Driving down the road yesterday and today you go by the placards for War Admiral, Secretariat, horses like that, and it’s amazing to think those horses were trained here for parts of their careers. It’s just mind-boggling.”