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Saratoga Sounds Different Without Fans

A small group of owners watches a horse leave the paddock at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
A small group of owners watches a horse leave the paddock at Saratoga Race Course

The 2020 summer meet at Saratoga Race Course ends Monday, Labor Day. With races run without fans because of the pandemic, the only sounds you might hear are the races themselves. As WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, an empty track means a chance to hear something different at post time.

There’s no cigar smoke, ragtime music in the backyard, crowds of spectators or anyone working the betting windows.

When the bell is rung at 17 minutes to post, Saratoga Race Course looks…empty.

As the bell is rung, the runners are led from the holding barn to the paddock. Fans or not, the show goes on for the backstretch workers who make racing happen — and of course, the horses.

There, the equipment is checked for each of the entrants, but with no fans crowding the fence to get a look at the thoroughbreds, it’s a quiet affair – about the only thing audible from the paddock fence is the sound of the hose cooling off the horses.

After the horses are checked, the gate is unlatched and the runners are led onto the track.

When they step onto the dirt, the bugle call is played over the loudspeaker – there’s no live bugler this year. Then, announcer John Imbriale goes over the field. Imbriale’s voice can be heard across the grounds as he plays to security staff, a small number of owners and the bettors watching remotely.

When the horses break from the starting gate, the group of owners watches the race near the winner’s circle, in front of an vacant clubhouse.

From the apron, you can hear the horses breathing as they run by. When the runners come down the homestretch, jockeys use their riding crops as they push for the wire.

The winner’s circle is a toned down celebration, but there’s still time for photos. As the jockeys weigh-out, socially-distanced reporters ask questions of the winners.

After this unusual track season, local officials are hoping for a much louder Saratoga season in 2021.

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