Keeping Score with Chip Ainsworth: Taking in the sights and sounds for Belmont weekend at Saratoga

Saratoga Race Course was paced with fans last weekend for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

Saratoga Race Course was paced with fans last weekend for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. PHOTO BY CHIP AINSWORTH

Saratoga Race Course was paced with fans last weekend for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

Saratoga Race Course was paced with fans last weekend for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. PHOTO BY CHIP AINSWORTH

Published: 06-14-2024 2:40 PM

Good morning!
Last week’s Belmont Stakes Racing Festival was the biggest happening in upstate New York since Woodstock. Four days of horse racing in Saratoga after three days of peace and love at Yasgur’s farm. 

You half expected Arlo Guthrie to come out shouting “New York State Thruway’s closed man!” This time instead of Janis Joplin belting out “Ball and Chain” and Jimi Hendrix guitar-picking through the national anthem, it was opera singer Ariadne Greif crooning “A Person Could Develop a Cold” from Guys and Dolls, and Broadway star Idina Menzel lifting “New York, New York” from zero to sixty moments before the longshot named Dornoch won the Belmont Stakes.

It cost $50 to get through the gate on Saturday compared to the usual $7, but that didn’t stop 50,000 fans from packing the fabled course to the seams. I went on Friday and scribbled notes in the pocket program that came with my $30 admission.

My first stop was to say hi to Joaquin who concocts a scrumptious Manhattan clam chowder. “What’s a cup cost this year, ten bucks?”

“Nine,” he said.

When I first met Joaquin it cost $5 for a cup of his savory tomato broth with spices and clam bellies. I once asked him for the recipe but he smiled and said it’s a family secret. His chowder was cheap compared to the $32 lobster rolls and $23 pastrami sandwiches.

Betting was secondary to people-watching at the 161-year-old thoroughbred track. The air was filled with the smell of cigar smoke and popcorn, and bands played different genres of music from rock n’ roll to Louisiana blues.

“These are civilians,” groused a longtime railbird. “They’re here for the happening.”

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People were indeed there to show off. Women strolled in elegant chapeaus and short dresses; men wore straw stetsons and short-sleeved shirts with Yankees logos. A Red Sox fan boldly walked toward the clubhouse in a pressed white Red Sox jersey with No. 14 on the back.

“Hey, Rice!” someone yelled. “Rice!” 

The fan turned around, smiled and waved. 

Out near the track a graying hippie with thick curly hair down to his shoulders and a horseshoe mustache stared at the tote board. He wore large round sunglasses and black leather pants and a long-sleeved dark shirt. When I asked if I could take a photo he called over his partner.

His ‘old lady’ as hippie chicks were called in the day wore an ankle-length white dress with tan pinstripes and a matching mushroom hat with the bill turned up. Still holding his cigarette and an empty beer cup in the other hand, he put his arm around her and they leaned into each other and kissed. It was the epitome of cool.

Vendors hawked goods from paintings to pecans, and none of it was cheap. I went over to an information booth to get a plastic cup and poured it full of mineral water at the Big Red Spring.

The ice cold water flows constantly from three spouts under a gazebo and has a bite. The first gulp quenched my thirst, the second tasted like a colonoscopy prep.

Unlike the regular summer meet, coolers weren’t allowed and beer vendors lugged flats filled with 24 oz. Miller Lites that cost $15.

“How’s biz?” I asked a red-haired, bearded hawker.

“Horrible,” he answered.

Arthur Strozewski concurred. His Cleveland-based Bow River jewelry business had always done well selling diamonds and gold priced from $55 to $75,000. “Terrible,” he said. “They hired someone from MLB who doesn’t know a thing about racing. This is a state run facility. Only the New York Racing Association could take something good and screw it up.”

At about 4 p.m. dark clouds started to approach from the west and the wind began to pick up. People started sprinting inside when the rain and wind hit like Ferde Grofe’s “Cloudburst” from the Grand Canyon Suite.

Trash cans were blown over, programs and betting slips swirled off of tables and vendors frantically closed shops. I looked beyond the maelstrom and saw grooms resolutely walking their horses from the stables to the paddock. The show must go on.

When the rain let up I started back to my car and passed a little girl with her mother and heard her say, “… and we’re not taking a shower, just gonna get more wet.”

My only bet had been a hunch play on a horse named Radio Red. The brown colt went off at 6-1 and finished at the bottom of the dial. The real meet starts in a month. The fun has just begun.

****

What a run it’s been for the local high school baseball and softball teams from Turners Falls, Pioneer, GHS and Tech. The last team standing is Gary Mullins’ TFHS Thunder who play Georgetown High School for the Division 5 state title today at noon at Sortino Field in Amherst.

Every year TFHS fans say it’ll be an off year, and every year the Pride of Powertown plays for the state championship. Good luck today, girls, we’re cheering for you.

****

SQUIBBERS: RIP, Guy Mainella, whose ‘Calling All Sports” show on WBZ-AM was the beginning of daily sports talk radio in Boston. … How sweet it was for Kyle Schwarber to hit a first pitch, leadoff home run against his old team on Tuesday, then back it up with another blast in the fifth inning. … Same goes for Phils GM Dave Dombrowski, who was fired five years ago by Red Sox owner John Henry and who sat in the Fenway Park press box pouring cream in his coffee. … Take Sominex tonight, or listen to Freddie Freeman respond to Ken Rosenthal’s question about the Dodgers-Yankees rivalry: “It’s exciting. This is what we play for, a packed house. I hope it’s a good game.”  … The Yankees don’t wear CityConnect uniforms. They’re happy in pinstripes. … Best name of a horse that won at the Spa last week: Studlydoright.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com