SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A cool breeze blew across the freshly harrowed dirt as exercise riders chatting in Spanish jogged their mounts along the outside rail. Approaching hoofbeats provided the soundtrack on a comfortable, cloudless morning.
Owners, trainers, clockers and fans congregate daily at the Oklahoma training track adjacent to Saratoga's backstretch. It's one of the thoroughbred world's most picturesque spots, America's answer to France's training center near the forest of Chantilly and the undulating gallops at Newmarket, headquarters of English racing for 350 years.
David Hirsch of Bellmore has been coming to Saratoga for 40 years, and recently he checked out the workouts at Oklahoma for the first time. "This is tremendous,'' he said. "If you brought somebody here who had absolutely no interest in racing and showed them this, how could they not like it?"
Show up on the Spa's backstretch at 9 on a summer day and you'll see a who's who of racing. Jockey agent Angel Cordero chatted up trainer Steve Asmussen, perhaps trying to get his client, John Velazquez, "on a horse.'' As Johnny V. zipped past on a Todd Pletcher-trained filly, Cordero told Velazquez's son, Michael Patrick, "There's your daddy.'' Pletcher scrutinized his filly through binoculars and walked to the clockers' stand to find out her exact time.
Merrick native Gary Contessa, a member of Calhoun High School's Hall of Fame, trained 159 winners in 2007, a New York Racing Association record. Contessa instructed a rider who admittedly was confused about where to begin a breeze. "Nick, I know I never asked you before to work one 6 furlongs here. Now, you're fired,'' Contessa joked. "Start right over there.''
A young girl in a pink T-shirt, clearly enthralled by the scene, did running commentary for her mother. "That one's just like Belle, with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth,'' she said. "Ooh, this one wants to run. He's like, 'Hey, let's go.' ''
Anthony Dutrow, 54, and younger brothers Rick and Chip grew up in Maryland working for their father, the late trainer Richard Dutrow. Like Rick, who won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown, Anthony has become a nationally prominent trainer. He can't imagine anything better than being stabled up here.
"Oh, Saratoga's great,'' Anthony Dutrow said. "It's one of the few places where you can see racing at its finest, and in an atmosphere that's made for horses. It's a busy place and you don't get a lot of sleep up here. You're always doing something horse related. But I do enjoy it, and I think it's really one of the wonderful things that horse racing has left.
"And really, don't feel too sorry for us horse trainers, because I think most of them would agree that we're on a vacation every day. We get up and get to work with these beautiful horses, and it's really a wonderful situation. So I think most of them would tell you that every day is a vacation.''
Notes & quotes: Zo Impressive, who fractured her right foreleg in Saturday's Alabama Stakes, was resting comfortably in her stall Sunday, trainer Tom Albertrani said. After surgery this week in Kentucky, a decision on her racing future will be made . . . Jim Dandy winner Alpha's challengers for Saturday's 1 1/4-mile Travers Stakes include Hansen, Atigun, Liaison, Neck 'n Neck, Nonios, Street Life, Stealcase and Five Sixteen . . . History Boy's steeplechase victory Thursday gave Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard at least one win at every Saratoga meeting dating to 1967. Sheppard, a 71-year-old native of England, also won a grass race Friday . . . Stephanie's Kitten ($4.20) overtook Centre Court in the final strides to win the Grade II, 1 1/8-mile Lake Placid Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the inner turf.