A thin layer of frost covered the grass and the thermometer read a mere 20 degrees as a red-orange cloud hung high in the sky as the final official day of training in Saratoga started to unfold.
The Oklahoma Training Track could not have been more quiet just past 7 a.m. this past Saturday, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the old grounds during the race meeting that wrapped in September and even well into October as the leaves began to change.
The emptiness of the expanse is unavoidable, horses and people are long gone and the dearth of activity in and around the barns makes it feel almost like they were never there at all.
The fallen leaves are blown into rows all over, giving the sense that at least someone’s been around. Steam rises from two muck piles, another sign of life even though nearly all the stalls are empty.
Signs that read “Keep Out” and “No Entre” are up on the doors of the dormitories. A backstretch tram is parked neat under the pole barn in front of the barn that housed soon-to-be Horse of the Year Gun Runner and the rest of Steve Asmussen’s string last summer. A pair of flip flops, covered by a thin layer of dirt and dust, sit on the ground behind another set of dorm rooms, their owner far away and most likely no longer in need with jackets and parkas needed now, even on the warmest of days.
Courtyards that used to be filled with horses cooling out or warming up in the morning now look like construction sites, with several barns benefitting from usual wintertime maintenance. New flooring is being installed, wallboards replaced, stall doors repaired.
A flat basketball sits in the middle of the road near the Oklahoma kitchen, which closed when the meet ended. The gates are locked at Union Avenue, the busy thoroughfare for horses and humans, whether on foot or golf cart, no longer needed.
The parking attendant, who stands on the road next to the horse path, is gone, but the two puddles that seem to linger for the entire meet are still there. They’re frozen though, another sure sign that it’s time to go.
Equipment is stacked and lined up near the maintenance area; plows out front and at the ready. The reds, yellows and oranges of the plows seem like the only colors inside the fences of the Oklahoma, everything else muted and dull.
Outside the gates and things seem to pop to life a little more – the green and purple of the ride-share bicycles at the corner of East and Union, decorated windows at King’s Tavern, the row of lawn jockeys are still in front of the Racing Museum, a few remaining red and white awnings visible in the backyard of the frontside of the track and the rich green barns at Fasig-Tipton.
Training officially ended Saturday, three days later than the usual closing day of November 15. Longtime clocker Bob Hamlin, who manned the clocker’s stand with Dave Lynett late this fall, said he couldn’t remember not closing shop November 15.
Only a handful of horses were on the grounds for that last day and no recorded works were in the books after November 16. The day before seemed like Times Square the day after Thanksgiving by November in Saratoga standards, with Hamlin and Lynett recording 19 breezes on the work tab.
The end of the season is always this way, quiet, empty and slow.
Now it’s time for the winter slumber, until the gates are unlocked, stall doors opened, horses and horsemen and women return and the tractors harrow the rich brown dirt of the track.
A new countdown is on. Five months to go – less than that actually – until the Oklahoma opens in mid-April.
See you in the spring.