Spring Break

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Cars and curious onlookers outnumbered the horses Wednesday morning when training officially started at the Oklahoma Training Track in temperatures hovering just below the freezing mark at Saratoga Race Course.

Cold weather certainly didn’t surprise any of those on hand for the traditional spring opening of the training track; it’s been nothing short of a super-extended winter and slow spring in upstate New York. The snow and ice are long gone – not counting some spots around town where plows piled it high or perhaps it gathered sliding off the roof.

The horses were gone for much of the time the white stuff occupied Saratoga Springs, most shipping south in late October with the last stragglers getting out around Nov. 12 when the track closed a few days early thanks to an early snowstorm. About three dozen moved in this week, including 20 for trainer Dave Cannizzo and others conditioned by Kerry Metivier.

Metivier, a resident of Glens Falls, is annually one of the first arrivals. Cannizzo is a fixture during the meet, the last few seasons stabled out of a barn in the middle of Clare Court on the main track side, but kept horses in Saratoga on and off during the past few offseasons.

“Years back I’d be here this time of year when I had one or two horses,” Cannizzo said as he watched his next-to-last set of two 2-year-olds come off the gap. “I’d help Greg Matties. I did that for a couple years. I always enjoyed it, being up here six months.

“It’s a better quality of life. Your quality of life, family, living, even expenses. The grocery bill here to there is like night and day. Everything. I can’t believe more people don’t do it. I guess it’s the drive, but NYRA pays the shipping.”

Cannizzo and his wife Carolyn, who also works in the barn, are in Saratoga early specifically because they were looking to improve that quality of life away from the area in and around Belmont Park on Long Island.

The couple has one daughter, Madison, and another child on the way. They closed on a small farm a few miles outside of Saratoga Springs in October and mother and daughter stayed in the area all winter while Cannizzo made trips back and forth from home to his barn at Belmont.

“I’d come home Sunday afternoon then drive back Wednesday morning early,” Cannizzo said. “I was hoping we’d have some bad weather so I could miss a week, but … it never happened all winter. I’d wake up Wednesday morning and be like, ‘come on, let there be three feet of snow so I don’t have to make the drive.’ ”

All kidding aside, Cannizzo hopes the early arrival of his downsized but slightly improved string that leans toward turf horses can produce wins. He’s won four races this year from 37 starts, including a victory Saturday at Aqueduct with Nueva York.

The star of the stable continues to be Black Tide, a multiple stakes winner who finished fifth in his 2019 debut in the Danger’s Hour Stakes April 7 at Aqueduct. Black Tide hit the Oklahoma shortly after it opened at 6 a.m., he and exercise rider Jessie Costa casting long shadows in the rising sun.

The small crowd that gathered near the gap turned out bundled up for the crisp morning air, still wearing winter jackets, hats, gloves and sweaters.

Dave Lynett, on the mend from elbow surgery following a fall this winter, stayed warm inside his usual spot in the clocker’s stand on Day 1. No official works were recorded – nor expected to be – and it could be a bit before any are down on the tab. The first came six days into training last year when Phil Gleaves breezed five horses and then no works came until a week later. After a smattering in late April and early May activity picked up significantly, as it will again this spring and summer.

“It’ll pick up for sure,” Lynett said. “But it’s quiet now.”

The arrival of a significant number of horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, George Weaver, Nick Zito and others annually marks the second phase of the offseason spring training on the Oklahoma, typically after Kentucky Derby Week and into the middle of May. The third comes just before the 40-day race meeting, which opens a week earlier this year, Thursday, July 11.

The Saratoga meet runs through Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 2, then it’s time for the fall offseason training, which runs through Nov. 15. Weather permitting, of course. 

• Follow it all in The Saratoga Special.