I arrive at 6:40. The sun is up, and the lines at each of the gates to the track are long, with people waiting expectantly for the day’s first race, the rush from the gates to the coveted picnic tables in the back. When I drove out of the track last night at 9:45, two guys were already sitting with a six pack, spending the night to be first in line.
They are lucky that they camped at the main Union Avenue entrance; in a gate crew screw-up worthy of Bob Duncan’s attention, that entrance was opened at 6:48, a full 12 minutes before scheduled post time. Those at the Wright St. entrance were not so lucky; they watched, and listened, agonized, as the Union Avenue crowd streamed in, while they stood imprisoned outside.
When their gate opened at 6:55, they sprinted in vain; not a single table remained, scooped by those given early access. Hours of waiting, all for naught. Someone, it seems, will have ‘splainin’ to do.
The mood is brighter on the backside, with sun glowing through the old trees, warming off the morning chill (47 degrees when I left the house). At barn 7, spirits are particularly high.
Allen Jerkens, for whom the Saratoga training title was recently named, winner of multiple Eclipse awards and training titles, Hall of Fame member, hadn’t had a winner at Saratoga since 2008. He rocked the Belmont meet, having more winners by percentage than any other trainer, but Saratoga hasn’t been kind to the Chief.
Until yesterday’s last race, when his Brampton broke her maiden in her second start.
Second in her début at Belmont in June, the Smart Strike filly has had Jerkens’ eye for some time, but after nearly two full winless seasons here, his optimism has been in short supply. He watched the race from the coffee stand on the backside, leaving saddling duties to his assistant, Fernando Abreu.
Brampton went off the 2.70-1 favorite, went to the lead and never looked back. In front by a head at the 3/8 pole, she won by a length and a quarter, “vied inside, determined.”
At the barn this morning, the Chief is jovial, expansive. His son has a starter in the Travers, and another in the Victory Ride; it’s a perfect, gorgeous morning; and he has a winner with a filly that he likes.
“There was another year that we had only one winner,” he reminisces, “and we were doing pretty good then. But you hate to go through without getting any.”
As we cruise the backstretch in the golf cart, we can’t go more than 20 feet without being stopped so that someone can shake the Chief’s hand and congratulate him. He is, observers can see, pleased.
Maybe that successful Belmont meet took its toll on his horses; surely, the loss of the injured Formidable is a blow. But with nine racing days left, the Chief is off the duck. Already, it’s a great Travers weekend.