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Far from Derby preps, a snapshot of the Oklahoma

Saturday, April 13, 2013
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SARATOGA SPRINGS — Brown and gray.

Even the fog refused to make much of a commitment, sort of there, sort of not. Shuffling its feet on the fringe of the picture.

Workouts, such as they were, started on the Oklahoma Training Track at 6 this morning, more humdrum than hum. By 6:30, a few sets of footprints co-mingled on the outskirts of the track, where a few ponies had gone for a walk, but just one set dotted a line through the track proper, made by a thoroughbred with a blank saddlecloth out for an easy gallop that the clockers essentially ignored.

The 145th Saratoga Race Course meet doesn’t start until July 19, but training is a year-round endeavor, and the Oklahoma is a big part of that, as it is available for workouts from early April until about whenever the weather gets cranky again in November.

Things will get cranking on this side of Union Avenue soon enough, and there’s plenty of anticipation for the Saratoga 150 anniversary celebration that will include the building of a beautiful viewing stand on the Oklahoma for the general public to use during training hours.

But many of the days will be like this one, a million miles away from the final round of Kentucky Derby preps at Keeneland and Oaklawn Park. A hodgepodge of muddy tire tracks, an indifferent gray sky, a little mist in the air trying to figure out if it wants to become something more.

I was on assignment, not for work, but to get a picture of a horse for my nephew, any horse, and the first one I saw on the track was a shaggy bay with a belly. “No pictures of the farm-fresh rat, please,” the rider called out, and we all cracked up. All four or five of us.

As bereft of thrills as the Oklahoma was, there’s something about the opening of the training track that has forced me to make it a little tradition in recent years. There’s something symphonic about the buildup to Saratoga, and the quiet opening notes are just as much a part of it as the cymbal crashes and high notes of the meet itself.

Catching up on business, one stable worker asked another as to the whereabouts of a colleague:

“He got an extra job off track.”

“Doing what?”

“Washing dishes. Nine dollars an hour.”

“Good. It’s hard to make it, ya know?”

One was wearing a trademark purple Breeders’ Cup jacket. Then a horse jogged by with a saddlecloth recognizable by the “GD” signifying trainer Glenn DiSanto. “Nobody’s breezing, but we still have to be here. Things’ll pick up next week,” clocker Dave said.

This was my shot. My nephew is 8, lives far from Saratoga and has never been to a racetrack, but he picked Saratoga as his subject for a school presentation on New York tourist attractions and landmarks. His posterboard came together beautifully (yes, I’m biased. But, no, really, it did), with colorful photos that included the twin Travers canoes in the Godolphin royal blue of Alpha and the Magic City Thoroughbred Partners orange of Golden Ticket.

I got word on Friday that he came through with a Grade I performance, so I promised to email a photo of a real, live horse from the Oklahoma.

DiSanto’s horse was in company with another, and they were impossible to lose, since they were the only ones on the track. As they galloped to the top of the stretch, I caught a pair of horses slowly walking from the gap along the outside rail from the other direction, and knew what was about to happen. I can’t believe it — there is virtually nobody on this track — but these two are going to ruin my shot because they’re due to walk by just as DiSanto’s horse hits the finish.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon ... I’m urging the DiSanto horse along as if I have $20 to win on him. Bang. I get him just before the other horses’ heads fill the frame and totally block him out.

A brown horse headed this way, a gray horse headed that way, and a red-and-white striped finish pole with a gold ball on top in between. It’s a lousy photo taken on my phone on a glum, drizzly day with nobody around, and is meant for my nephew’s eyes only.

But it all came together.

 
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