Racing Wednesday, training Thursday. Such is the way of the world these days in New York, which continues to trudge through the gradual reopening of the state in the midst of the worldwide health crisis that at times seems forgotten while protests over racial injustice and police brutality rage around the globe.
Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma Training Track sprang into action Thursday, the day after live racing resumed on the NYRA circuit at Belmont Park after a 2 1/2-month hiatus.
The return of offseason training at the Oklahoma, approved by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo along with racing in the state to resume without crowds after June 1, provided the perfect respite from the ills of the world at least for a few hours Thursday morning.
Trainers Bill Mott and Jim Bond, regulars for training and racing in upstate New York, were on hand for Day 1 along with members of Chad Brown’s team.
Only a smattering of horses made it out to train on a morning replete with sunshine, Bond’s runners making their usual walk from his private barn on Gridley Street and Brown’s taking the short stroll between barns inside Horse Haven. A small group of cars lined up outside Gate 21 on East Avenue to catch a glimpse of the first day of training, which ran for three hours starting at 6 a.m.
Inside the gates the crowd was sparse, decked out in masks and restricted to barn personnel, a small group of media and other essential employees.
“This is the new normal for a little while,” said Bond, watching the 5-year-old Overanalyze gelding Evaluator train from a golf card with his son and assistant Ryan. “We’ll all get through it and I think everyone is happy to get through it. Yesterday was a big day, almost $11 million bet in New York. We are the only game in town, which is a good thing.”
Mott echoed Bond’s sentiments from the coutyard in his usual spot toward the back of the Oklahoma, while overseeing a shipment of horses and equipment.
“We had three loads yesterday and two loads today,” Mott said, keeping an eye on a construction crew working on a nearby barn’s slate roof. “Getting the equipment sorted out is the hard part. It’s strange but it’s great to be here, the weather is good. We waited a month longer to come up so obviously it’s spring and glad to have the horses up here.”
Mott spent much of the coronavirus quarantine period at his main winter base at Payson Park in Florida. He ran horses at Oaklawn Park and recently at Churchill Downs, inching close to 5,000 official wins in the process. Win No. 4,997 came Sunday when Paris Lights broke his maiden at Churchill.
Mott hoped for another Wednesday during Belmont’s Opening Day card with Hidden Scroll, until the oft-times problematic colt stumbled at the start of his turf debut and tossed jockey John Velazquez.
“Last night I called Dave Grening, who had written a story about 5,000 wins, and told him ‘I’m not going to get there with starts like that,’ ” Mott said. “That was disappointing. He was set up in a good spot, good post, the turf course was in good shape. It’s a good thing I didn’t come across some free money to bet him, he was a good price, 5-2, 3-1, I might have done that at that price.”
Mott shipped 15 horses to Saratoga Wednesday and expected another 10 Thursday and 10 Friday. Bond sent a small number of older horses up from Belmont and planned to bring 2-year-olds in soon.
Bond spent much of the quarantine at his home not far from Payson Park, with his wife Tina while his other son Kevin handled the work at Belmont. Ryan shifted from Belmont to the family’s farm when the coronavirus started to spread throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond.
“There wasn’t much you could do,” Bond said of the time in Florida, where he didn’t bring any horses to run this winter. “We have a nice home down there and I learned to go crazy. Crazier, Ryan might say.
“It was good. I got caught up on a lot of stuff I needed to do. We did some stuff around the house. She had a honey-do list, you know what those are. They never end. Our house is on the golf course, the course was open, but I don’t play golf. Because of the coronavirus I could hardly visit with my neighbors. My wife had me walking about five miles a day and I did learn I hate women trainers. She was trying to starve me and make me walk.”
So, like at least a few of the horses on the grounds, Bond is fit and ready to run anyway.
The barn area figures to fill up significantly in the days and weeks ahead, with 2-year-olds shipping out of training centers in Florida and other points south.
Strict protocols will also continue, with access to the stable area limited to personnel licensed by NYRA and the New York State Gaming Commission. Personnel, local and those coming from other regions, working at the Oklahoma must test negative for COVID-19 or test positive for the antibodies for COVID-19.
NYRA said last week that “face masks or coverings and adherence to strict social distancing measures will be mandatory at all times. Masks and personal protective equipment will be provided.”
None of that seemed to be an issue with anyone on hand Thursday, including longtime Oklahoma clocker Dave Lynett.
“They dropped off a box of 50 for me a little while ago, and another box of 50 for someone else,” Lynett said.
Bond even took things a step further, sporting a blue mask with his trademark white “007” numbers.
“We’re working with NYRA to do everything they want, keep the governor happy and hopefully win some races,” Bond said. “Let’s hope for that and for things to go smooth these next few weeks. For our stable we’ll probably leave everything status quo for the next few weeks, see how it goes and not do a lot of shuffling. We’ll just see how it goes, or just keep on trucking as the saying goes.”