We are still weeks away from the Kentucky Derby and months ahead of the summer racing season, but Saratoga's Oklahoma Training Track is officially open. As our Matt Hunter reports, a rainy and icy Monday morning made for a slow start to the season.
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – As one of the de facto traffic cops on Saratoga's Oklahoma Training Track, outrider Roger Stockton is used to long, hard mornings in the saddle.
“Our main job is to make sure everybody follows the rules out here," said Stockton, a former rodeo cowboy who has been working on the training track for the past 10 years. "If there are any unruly horses, we have to go help the riders with the unruly horses. If there happens to be a horse that gets loose, we try to contain that horse."
With an icy rain soaking the historic grounds, Monday's opening day of training season was anything but busy for the veteran horseman and his riding partner.
"We haven’t got to see a whole lot but ourselves and you,” Stockton joked while sitting near the track’s far turn. “It’s been very quiet this morning.”
“We were hoping to get the horses out for a little exercise, but the weather is not cooperating,” trainer Phil Gleaves said.
Shipping in from Florida Sunday morning, Gleaves was the first -- and so far, only -- trainer to arrive on the back stretch. The trianing track sits just across Nelson Avenue from Saratoga Race Course and will eventually be home to more than 1,000 horses by the time the summer's racing season begins.
"We wanted to get up here early, because some of these horses are ready to run, and I wanted to get them acclimated as soon as possible,” said Gleaves, who spent the winter in Ocala.
The winner of the 1986 Travers Stakes is back in Saratoga for the first time in 15 years.
“This city lives and breathes horse racing. Horse is king here,” said Gleaves, whose Midsummer Derby victory with Wise Times came during his first year of training. “The barn area is so historic. The amount of great race horses that have walked by where we are standing right now would blow our mind.”
With nine unraced two-year-olds in his barn, Gleaves is hopeful at least one of the precocious colts and fillies will join those ranks.
“It’s a very exciting time,” said Gleaves, who also trains a four-year-old gelding that raced at Tampa Bay Downs over the winter. “It is what we all dream of, getting a really good young horse. We do not know yet what we have. Time will tell.”
Time will also tell when warmer weather finally arrives.
“Spring will be here, and this is only a minor setback,” Gleaves said.
Until then, the small few already settled in are waiting -- some less patiently than others.
"When it is cooler like this, [horses] are a little bit more rambunctious,” Stockton said while seated in his saddle. “Of course, this one here, he hasn’t done anything all winter, so he is ready to go do something."
Opening Day of the 2018 Saratoga Race Course meet is scheduled for July 20.