SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The New York Racing Association greeter stationed just inside the clubhouse gate at Saratoga was directly on point as early arrivals filtered through the turnstiles on Monday.
"Winter," he said, "starts tomorrow."
The 40-day meeting at Saratoga closed in stages over the Labor Day weekend, which was a combination of melancholy, relief and dread.
Those who follow will be political louts, Cuomotrons.
Long-time board members, including chairman Steve Dunker, bid farewell quietly, one after another, over the weekend in advance of the impending strong-arm, state-government seizure of the NYRA, parting, sometimes tearfully, with associates and friends. They were not without shortcomings, at times misplaced trust and took for granted that the organization was being run competently, but the core members of the NYRA board were racing people. Those who follow will be political louts, Cuomotrons.
At least one executive departed rather than deal with the inevitable administrative trauma that awaits those returning to Belmont Park. No one knows what to expect, what the rules will be or who will be appointed to lead -- or dismantle -- the world's most important racing association. No one expects that the future will be bright or the coming decisions enlightened.
Still, this meeting was one of overextension in every sense – far too many races, days too long and six-day weeks do not lend themselves to a festive atmosphere and by the meeting's fifth week, Labor Day could not come soon enough. Based upon the standard nine-race weekday and 10-race weekends, NYRA crammed the equivalent of more than 47 days of racing into 40. It did not pay off unless the point was to clear the grounds early and alienate both fans and staff.
Still, as usual, horses step into the breach and interrupt the malaise.
Questing, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks at the beginning of the meeting and the Alabama with an absolute tour de force a month later, put herself in position to make a bid for a Horse of the Year title. Though the 3-year-old division is depleted and generally uninteresting, the dead-heat, 143rd Travers is now part of the history of this nation's oldest and most-historic racetrack. Saratoga is perennially about 2-year-olds and several very promising juveniles were unveiled here during the summer, none more heralded than Archwarrior, who, impressive by every measure, will have more to say in the waning days of 2012.
Some of the best things about Saratoga are unexpected and this year the cherry on the sundae was watching Ramon Dominguez set new standards of consistent excellence in the toughest place in the nation to ride.
There is an unmistakable anxiety over what is ahead -- a dread that it may never be the same.
Dominguez rode six winners on Sunday to break a record held since 2004 by John Velazquez and added another win -- his 67th of the meeting -- in the first race on closing day. He padded the newly minted record astride the sixth-race winner, the signature on an impressive Spa standard.
Without question, this is the deepest and most talented jockey colony in the nation and the unassuming Dominguez has quietly and efficiently established that he is the equal of any jockey ever to have played the game in this country.
The last day of this meeting feels differently this time. There is no sense that something is only temporarily over and that this will always be a comfortable, inviting place to race horses in summertime. There is an unmistakable anxiety over what is ahead -- a dread that it may never be the same.
A certain romance and timelessness pervades this place and this game presided over by the ghosts of legends who have walked here before us, but none in Albany, where those who care nothing about racing plot its future, or its slow and cruel starvation.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.