SARATOGA SPRINGS - The fans stood 20 deep on the track apron as the horses loaded into the gate in front of the stands. For the 24th and final time, Tom Durkin led the crowd in a roar of "And they're off at Saratoga!"
Winter Games, a 14-1 shot, was the inappropriately named winner of Friday's first race at the summer place to be. Two hours earlier, at 11 a.m., people sprinted to claim picnic tables as the gates opened for the Spa's 146th meeting. The elegantly attired filled the spacious paddock while thousands of locals partied in the large backyard.
Durkin, 63, is retiring Aug. 31 after calling the horses for 43 years, and his unique, colorful descriptions of the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup have been heard all over the world. As he began his final meet at Saratoga, the old place lured another racing icon, jockey Frankie Dettori, for the first time.
Dettori, 43, is a transplanted Italian based in England, and he's won every important European stakes plus four Breeders' Cup Turfs. "Riding at Saratoga is one of the few things left on my bucket list," he said Tuesday. "I always wanted to go there."
He made it, but what a trip. Coming from Heathrow via JFK, then to Albany, Dettori endured flight delays before learning that his luggage, including all his racing gear, had been lost. He didn't show up in time to ride the first and second races for trainer Wesley Ward but was there for the seventh. More trouble, because his mount lost a shoe on the way to the post. Rather than delay the race to replace it, the stewards ruled Tiz Sardonic Joe would run for purse money only. He still finished a close second.
The flamboyant Dettori ruled his new stage in the eighth, leading throughout on Ward's Aventure Love. He did two of his trademark flying dismounts amid shouts of "Frankie! Frankie!"
"What a great feeling when I crossed the line," said Dettori, who also won the 10th for Ward and will ride here through Monday. "I felt like a kid again. I wanted to do this for 25 years. When I arrived, I thought I was at Disney World with all the people. They're the ones who make the atmosphere."
That's always been true at Saratoga, where Todd Pletcher's dominance with 2-year-olds also seems to have gone on forever. Pletcher began his quest for his 11th training title here, and fifth in a row, by taking the Grade III Schuylerville with the 1-5 favorite, Fashion Alert. She and rider John Velazquez had to work for it, beating a game Take Charge Brandi by 11/2 lengths after a protracted speed duel.
It was Pletcher's fifth Schuylerville victory, one behind D. Wayne Lukas, who trains the runner-up. Lukas, 78, and Pletcher's father, J.J., were buddies back in the late 1960s while training quarter horses in the Southwest. Lukas knew Todd, 47, as a toddler and calls him "my adopted son." Pletcher was Lukas' assistant from 1989-95 before going out on his own.
"I know Wayne likes his filly a lot," Pletcher said. "They both were getting a little tired, but Fashion Alert showed some guts. It's always nice to get that first win of the meeting out of the way."
It's a certainty Pletcher will have many more.