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The Saratoga Sounds Before "They're Off!"

Lucas Willard
Sam "the Bugler" Grossman after a bugle call at Saratoga Race Course

Saratoga Race Course is America’s oldest sporting venue, and if you pick any race during the summer season you may notice a few traditions that make the track stand out.

The track is a good place for sensory overload: food and drinks, cigar smoke, horses, excited shouting….And exactly 17 minutes before every race at Saratoga, you’ll hear this sound.

The bell that is heard across the grounds is mounted in the winner’s circle and is only rung by one person, 19-year-old Shea Sullivan.

“In the days before the PA system, it’s said that the trainers used to fall asleep  in the backstretch and so the bell was to wake them up so they would bring their horses into the paddock,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan works as a “white cap” helping guests in the stands. But before every race, she comes down the steps to ring the bell.  She’s been doing it for the past three-and-a-half seasons.

“It was about midway through my first year as a white cap. The bell ringer quit unexpectedly and so I was the fill-in, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Sullivan.

After the bell is rung, the thoroughbreds are brought from the holding barn to the paddock. This is where horses are cooled off and saddled before each race.

The man in charge here is Paddock Judge Peter Fitzgerald.

“In the paddock, the main thing is checking the horses’ equipment: making sure they have what they’re supposed to be having, that they’re saddled properly, correct saddle towels, things like that.”

The paddock is also where race fans in the backyard can get a look at their picks before the start of the race, which Fitzgerald said is important if you want to be a serious handicapper.

“I think it is to your advantage, just to get an idea of a hands-on…looking directly at the horse and see how they’re acting and of course where their competition is…but you’ve done that homework before, OK?”

After a few short minutes, there’s a call from Fitzgerald’s assistant, David Osojnak.

“Riders up!”

The jockeys are then mounted on the horses and the runners are led out to the track.

The bugle call is performed by Sam Grossman, known to all as Sam the Bugler. He’s something of a Saratoga celebrity, and has even become a bobblehead; it’s his job to alert the crowd that the horses are on the track.

“So that the people could actually get a look at the horses. A hundred years ago, tens-of-thousands of people would rush to the front of the apron to see the horses. It was their only chance to see the horses; now you can always see the horses,” said Grossman.

When he’s not playing the horn, kept in a small cabinet beside the bell in the winner’s circle, Grossman works the crowd, posing for photos and joking with fans.

“There’s been a lot of wacky stuff in my 25 years. People have baked cakes and brought ‘em in, just too many things to mention. But I can say that I’m grateful for every one of the 40 days.”

The last thing to do before the start of the race is to bring the horses to the starting gate. The younger ones, I’m told, need a little more encouragement to get into the gate.

Just as soon as they’re in, they’re off.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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