SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.
On any other day, the break from a sweltering, bone-dry July would have been welcomed. A cooling rain began at 9:30 Friday morning and didn't stop until 5 p.m. on this unofficial holiday in the Capital District. Opening day at Saratoga is a festival, so the upstate crowd of 23,178 packed umbrellas and ponchos before starting the party.
Bill Parcells arrived in a tan sport jacket, a bit damp but smiling broadly as he chatted with mutuel clerks before heading for a first-row box just past the finish line.
Elegantly attired women in fancy hats graced the clubhouse, where they and their escorts could sample $10 bourbon cocktails.
Out back, beneath red and white awnings, an eight-piece band played old-time music for people shielded by souvenirs of umbrella giveaways.
At 12:51, nine minutes before first post, the fourth, fifth and sixth races came off the turf, and an hour later, the main track was rated sloppy. Of the 127 entries on the 10-race card, 31 were scratched, not counting six main-track-only runners.
The new tote board with its smallish, white numerals was hard to read, but it's just a bunch of numbers, so what's the big deal? A New York Racing Association spokesman called it "a work in progress." On an upbeat note, as the sky grew darker, it was much more legible, and there were plans to reprogram it overnight.
Amid the downpour, fans stood five-deep from the top of the stretch to the clubhouse turn and joined race caller Tom Durkin in yelling "And they're off at Saratoga!"
When 23-1 shot Dontstealmyland got up in the final strides to take a three-horse photo on a good inner turf course, the hitherto unknown Richard Metivier had trained his second winner of the year. Continuing the "Graveyard of Favorites" tradition was Seattle Mission, who finished third at 4-5.
Strange things always happen at the Spa, and here we go again. The infield video screen faded to black before the fourth race, in which Tar Beach and Chef Eric, the only main-track-only runners, ran 1-2. If you always box 15 and 16, you cashed.
Nothing weird occurred in the James Marvin, the first of two stakes. Vineyard Haven ($3.30) coasted by 1 3/4 lengths, going 7 furlongs in 1:22.30 under a tight hold by Alan Garcia. Godolphin Stable paid a reported $12 million for the colt to a group that included Joe Torre, so the $45,000 winner's share wasn't much more than oat money.
Chaos returned in the Grade III Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies. Le Mi Geaux ($20.20), with apprentice Freddie Lenclud riding for trainer Rick Dutrow, rallied from far back for a 1 1/2-length upset. She ran 6 furlongs in 1:13.67 after capitalizing on a speed duel that cooked runner-up Stopspendingmaria, Show Me The Bling and Let's Get Fiscal. The first quarter-mile went in a blazing 21.81 seconds, the final 2 furlongs in a crawling :27.80.
"That was a pleasant surprise," Dutrow said. "I thought the wet track might help us, but that was only a hope."
The oddities will resume here Saturday morning, when local U.S. Congressman Scott Murphy will present a resolution congratulating Saratoga for opening its gates for its 142nd season. Few expected that NYRA would keep them shut.