Open House at the Spa, 2012

Let’s hope that Sunday’s open house at Saratoga is not a harbinger of things to come.

Perhaps due to a less-than-pleasant weather forecast (a forecast that it never occurred to me to check), the crowd seemed smaller—though no less enthusiastic—than other years, or perhaps more people were concentrated inside, where I didn’t spend much time.

The face-painting stations seemed to be the most popular spot, with lines threading back towards the paddock mutuel bay from the clubhouse; various local food purveyors and non-profits were on hand to sell their wares and collect donations.

Among those present was Homes for Orphaned Pets Exist (H.O.P.E.), about whom I wrote last summer when they were the featured non-profit at the track, and undeterred by the rain, three families left the track with a new furry family member, including my friend, Lisa, whose teenaged son convinced her (it didn’t take much) that their cat seriously needed a playmate. In addition to helping cats and dogs find new homes, H.O.P.E. helps low-income families get their pets spayed and neutered—check their website or Facebook page for more information.

The drizzle began in the early afternoon, its intensity waxing and waning; three of the five scheduled National Steeplechase Association races were run as planned, but races four and five were taken off the turf and run as workouts over the Spa’s main track.

Shortly before the fifth, the skies opened up in an epic Spa downpour. Though thunder and lightning made an appearance elsewhere, this was just rain. Lots of it. For a long time. Shoes were abandoned as visitors navigated puddles, surrendering in the fight to stay dry and getting soaked to the skin. Toddlers were observed to be gleefully drenching themselves; parents were overheard futilely chastising them.

The open house is the unofficial kick-off to the 2012 racing meet; let’s hope that we look back at it as an aberration and not as a trend-setter, that we are not about to embark on another drenched Spa summer of off-the-turf races and ruined sandals, that we get only as much rain as the thirsty greenery and crops nearby need to thrive, and not enough to turn the turf courses sodden and fragile.

One event is in the books, with so many more to come. Already, it’s tempting to count the days, to remember that our days here are few and precious, and that we need to save every single one, even as we hang our clothes up to dry.

Back tomorrow with a look at this week’s Spa-related events….

4 thoughts on “Open House at the Spa, 2012

  1. Yeah, how about that. The two training “races” wound up on the dirt, and with only a fraction of the intended starters. That much-hoped-for rain came in Saratoga proportions when it was least needed, but common sense prevailed and our turf course was preserved for the more important Saratoga Meet.

    Though the displaced events for jumpers were originally intended as preparatory training for real competition later on next week — and substantially less meaningful — Sunday showed me my first “steeplechase races” switched to the dirt!

  2. First time I’d ever seen such a thing, too, Mr. Cassidy, but, strictly speaking, as Teresa noted, once the events were moved to dirt, they ceased being competitive races and were merely “exercise” exhibitions. I’m not sure if they were clocked as official works, as a result, but they might have been. Some chose to use it as a “pseudo-race” and galloped at speed close to the rail, while others, who were moving at a more leisurely pace, clearly observing workout protocol and stayed out in the middle of the track, leaving the rail for the swiftest movers.

    Personally, while I don’t object to steeplechasing, per se, and I’m keenly aware of its inherent risks, I settled into my box seat in the clubhouse uneasily when I saw the condition of dirt track (sealed) and assumed the turf courses held their own measure of moisture as well. Wet grass and horses galloping at speed on it is never a great combination no matter where you are – been there, done that, and most horsemen and women I know don’t recommend or encourage it. Unfortunately, my anxieties were well-founded as I watched the 2nd and 3rd steeplechase races on Sunday. Three horses injured, and, ultimately, all three were euthanized.

    I can’t say whether the wet conditions contributed to any of the injuries, but, after some discussion with the affected horsemen in the 4th and 5th races, those races were moved to the dirt track as workouts thereafter. Certainly that decision helped preserve the courses from further damage, but I’d lay pretty solid odds that it wasn’t the principal reason for the decision. I only wish it had come sooner, for everyone’s sake, especially the horses.

  3. Interesting perspective, Leslie. At the Safety and Welfare Summit a couple of years ago, Dr. Tim Parkin noted that in Europe, more injuries occurred on fast, dry turf than on wet, soft courses–which would be contrary to U.S. concerns about running on soft ground.

    Would be interesting to see what the stats here are.

  4. Leslie,

    I agree with most of what you write. According to my notes of the races, though, we suffered the loss of a horse in each of the first three events carded: #10, Randleston Farm’s Autumn Riches, trained by Jimmy Day and ridden by Gustav Dahl in Race #1; #4, William L. Pape’s Twice the Price, trained by Jonathan Sheppard and ridden by Brian Crowley in Race #2; and #4, Irvin S. Naylor’s Plattsburgh, trained by Joseph W. Delozier, III and ridden by Ross Geraghty in Race #3. At least these are the horses that caused incidents I observed.

    I have no practical course experience outside the United States, but am led to believe from what I have read over the years that both steeplechase racing and turf racing are conducted there over wet grass that is labeled both “soft” and “yielding” with some regularity; “soft” indicating the give of underlying soil, and “yielding” indicating give to the extreme of underlying soil. In other words, for better or worse, I think European, Asian and Australian training and racing accept “off” grass-surface conditions with the same ease with which North and South American training and racing accept “off” dirt-surface conditions.

    If my understanding is accurate, trainers and racing centers elsewhere accept and adapt to a wider variation of conditions than do we. Sunday’s unfortunate experiences probably shouldn’t have been attributed to off going, and might better have been accepted as the terrible exception to long-term experience, unexplainable aberrations to the regularly durable sport/business of steeplechase racing.

    I don’t think the last two events that became public workouts in the rain were clocked because there didn’t seem to be any order to what the horses and riders were doing. I could be wrong, of course, but I’ll be surprised if I see attributable works for July 15 at Saratoga’s Open House.

    I can’t vouch for your thinking as to the rationale for changing the fourth and fifth races to the dirt. Perhaps the change was made simply because both races were originally intended as training events for novice jumpers and no good reason could be made to run them over a pristine, but perishable turf course that would be needed for the Saratoga Meet.

    I can guarantee you, though, NSA and NYRA are both principally interested in the well-being of our horses and riders, and this philosophy ruled Sunday’s actions. Absolutely! You can believe this guiding principal without worry.

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