Adding myself to the legions who have quoted Eliot’s words out of context, I drove onto the barren grounds of the Oklahoma on Saturday morning. Early balminess had given way to gray chill; April felt like October, as it so frequently has this year. It looked like it, too.
Only a few cars dotted the lawn near the track; fewer than half a dozen scattered spectators stood along the rail. A steely sky hung over us, and when the breeze came through, collars were turned up; hats were sought. The nearby track kitchen was still sealed up tight, with no hope of a warming cup of coffee.
I walked up to the clockers’ stand; the two men inside surveyed an empty track. I had apparently just missed the first official Saratoga workouts of 2009; a whopping six horses worked out yesterday morning, providing an easy re-entry for the men working the stopwatches. One of them, Joe Williams, cracked, “Gotta get back in shape—I have to go home and ice my thumb.”
More than one person noted that the track was fast and hard, which makes sense given that it was so recently still frozen. Despite the light equine traffic, the track nonetheless closed at nine, and the familiar tractors came out to harrow it.
Most of the barns are still shut up, most of the shedrows deserted. It was hard not to think of one section of the barn area as Contessa Town; it hummed with activity in stark contrast to the stillness of the rest of the place. Dozens of horses peeked out of stalls, jogged along the road for the farrier, got ready to work out.
Horse transport vans were a welcome harbinger; over the next few weeks, they’ll arrive daily with their precious cargo, a sure sign to Saratogians that spring really might arrive one of these days, despite the stubborn snowdrifts sticking around. If you look hard enough, you can see that the spring rain has indeed stirred the dull roots, and that blossoms are working mightily to make their presence known. And for those who mourn each September the closing of the Saratoga Race Course, and who wait for that first post each July, the opening of the Oklahoma in April spurs that Eliotian mix of memory and desire: memory of Spa summers past, and desire for the next one to get here, as fast as it can. Maybe April’s not so cruel, after all.