Monday, August 21, 2006

Saratoga Race Course: Is that a Famous Face...or are you just wearing a Mod Mask?

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Just like she does every year, Sue Quintal roused a group of girlfriends from their early morning slumber and hit the road for Saratoga.

'I've been coming to this racecourse since I was a kid,' said the North Troy woman, recalling the opening days she attended at Saratoga Race Course with her father.

Now she comes with a group of friends who descend upon the track grounds just as the dawn cracks over the East. The early arrival is necessary to secure one of the most highly-coveted tables near the paddock.

A few yards away, Jim and Lorraine Fish were able to get their prime table by coming at 6:15 a.m.

'We were told to come early, because it's like a rat race to get a good spot,' said Jim Fish, who spent half of his life racing to put out fires for the Cohoes Fire Department before retiring. 'And these days, I'm not running,' he laughed.

Across Union Avenue, at the Oklahoma Training Track, the horses have been exercising around the oval since 5:30 a.m.

If Saratoga Race Course is the main stage, then the Oklahoma track is its green room. Here is where preparations are made for the six-week meet, and where the early dawning landscape of the morning fog blends with the subtle sounds of hooves and beating hearts.

As the 'official' opening nears at 10:30 a.m., all who have staked their claim on tables by marking them with distinctive tablecloths at the racecourse are asked to go back outside, where they wait 100 deep, in a line stretching out onto the avenue.

At precisely 11 a.m., the gates are opened and the crowd enters, serenaded by the sounds of Van Morrison's 'Moondance,' courtesy of a morning jam between Reggie's Red Hot Feetwarmers and the dozen horn-wielding members of a group calling itself Brass-o-mania.

At post-time, the familiar voice of Tom Durkin booms around the track once again, for the first time in 10 months. Durkin instructs the crowd what is expected of them for the annual opening day tradition.

'The time has come to start the 138th Saratoga season,' announced Durkin, 'so let's light this candle. When the horses leave the gate, I will say: 'And.' Then you will say: 'They're off at Saratoga.' '

And that's pretty much how it goes down, although quite a stir is caused a little later by celebrity hunters.

'O-my-god there's Rod Stewart,' one excited fan squealed, pointing to the reserved box seats overlooking the winner's circle.

Sure enough, there he was. Rod the Mod, they used to call him. Rod of the legendary band, The Yardbirds. Rod of Rod Stewart and The Faces. Memories of songs poured out, from 'Hot Legs' to 'Maggie May,' 'Blondes Have More Fun' to 'Mandolin Wind.' There he was, right there. The gravelly-voiced rock icon who once had an album called 'A Nod is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse,' and the one who used to sing that popular lyric that went: 'Every picture tells a story - Don't it?'

And the fan's squeal led to a flurry of image-capturing cell phones pointed at the rock star, who stood up and waved in acknowledgement, modeling a pair of powder-pink pants, his distinctively crooked nose and trademark rooster-cut mane that was streaked in blond.

'You know that's not really him,' said a guy with the skeptical eyes of someone who has spent a lot of years seeing many things at the racecourse.

'Looks just like him. What do you mean it's not him?' he was asked.

'That guy comes here every year. The first time I saw him, he got me, too,' he said, shaking his head knowingly.

Even the acknowledgement that this Rod the Mod was in reality some sort of an impersonating Odd Rod, didn't seem to deter the digital cell phone paparazzi.

'Yeah, I know it's not him,' said one girl, a little agitated that the question distracted her from her incessant picture-taking. Quickly, she spun around and resumed clicking away.

'What difference does it make whether it's really him or not anyway?' she asked, snapping away.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
"Race Course a Local Jewel," The Saratogian,
July 28, 2006