Spring at the Spa

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Upstate New York awoke from its winter slumber this week and even though the calendar still shows 100 days until the opening of the Saratoga Race Course meeting, the area welcomed back some old friends early Wednesday morning. The offseason season got started early Wednesday at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track, the first horse hitting the track not long after daybreak a little after 6 a.m.

The sky is clear but there’s a chill in the air when the chestnut gelding Oliver Rush takes the first steps of the 2015 offseason training season in Saratoga. Nothing like the frigid weather of January and February, the temperatures plunged well below zero and snow piled up by the foot.

Oliver Rush, a 4-year-old by Congrats five days removed from finishing sixth in a starter-allowance at Aqueduct, is one of 15 horses on the grounds trained by Richard “Kerry” Metivier. A restaurateur who owns Aimie’s Dinner & Movie in nearby Glens Falls, Metivier is one of two trainers with horses on the grounds. Gabriel Goodwin is the other and the procession of horses trained by the two men alternate as the early portion of the morning passes.

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. 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.

Metivier was one of handful of well-wishers that stopped by the clocker’s stand throughout the morning, shank in hand, adding to a light mood.

“How far?” Williams joked.

“How about three-quarters?” Metivier quietly deadpanned in response.

No official works were recorded or even planned Wednesday. Nearly all of the horses that went to the track jogged, only a few turning around the right way for gallops. That will certainly change in the coming days and weeks, as the ground warms and the barns fill up.

Horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, George Weaver and Christophe Clement will fill more than 20 barns as they trickle in through the end of April and into early May. Plenty more horsemen use Saratoga for either their main base or a satellite operation, including Jim Bond, Mike Dilger, Kiaran McLaughlin, Eric Guillot, Linda Rice, Gary Contessa and Bruce Brown.

At least for now some of the game’s lesser known horses and horsemen get the place to themselves, even if one of the clockers tried to trick an opening-day photographer that some big guns were on the grounds.

“You just missed Affirmed and Alydar,” Bob Hamlin joked as he pointed to the empty racetrack.

Training will continue daily through the spring and summer, right through the Saratoga Race Course meeting that opens July 24 and into late summer and fall. The Oklahoma typically closes for the season in mid-November.

“Just think, six months and 29 days to go,” Williams proclaimed as a voice on the other end of a radio announced that training was finished for the day.