A Day at Saratoga

As the sun begins to peek over the Adirondacks, a thin layer of fog still blankets the Oklahoma training track. Cars are pouring into the East Avenue gate to park on the grass near the top of the stretch. Across the street on Union Ave., people have been lined up for hours with their coolers and picnic accessories hoping to get a choice spot, preferably near the paddock or in the shade of an elm tree. Downtown, people stroll up and down Broadway and on the side streets, heading to their favorite breakfast eatery to handicap the day's races.

At one end of Steve Asmussen's barn at Oklahoma, the distinctive broken blaze of Rachel Alexandra can be seen by passersby as she peers out her stall, eyeing all the activity. Standing a few feet away, Rachel's "bodyguard" Amy Kearns has her eyes glued to last year's Horse of the Year, her stomach already in knots. Barbara Banke, wife of owner Jess Jackson, stops by the barn to get one final look at her star filly and touch base with Asmussen and assistant Scott Blasi.

Just outside the track's clubhouse entrance, directly across from the paddock, the quaint old stakes barn seems aglow with the presence of Zenyatta, as trainer John Shirreffs stares intently at her, making sure he hasn't overlooked anything. Zenyatta already has her game face on. Racing's most conspicuous diva knows when showtime is getting near. She has been anthropomorphized to such a degree many are convinced she knows the "Roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd." Most in attendance this day have never seen her now-famous California two-step that she performs before every race.

By 10 o'clock, Route 9 leading into the town of Saratoga is a wall of cars. Many have gotten off an exit before the track, because the Northway is bumper to bumper. People want to get to the track early to get their "Rachel" and "Zenyatta" buttons and other giveaways. NYRA is having its first "Sign Day," awarding prizes for the most inventive and well-constructed signs - one prize for best Rachel sign, one for best Zenyatta sign, and one for best sign depicting both fillies. They are already popping up throughout the rapidly growing crowd - "When Queens Collide," "Welcome to Zaratoga!" "Alexandra the Great," "Zen-yada yada yada," "Coup d'Spa."

The theme song being played around the track is "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from the musical Flower Drum Song. You can even sing along: ""When my (trainer) comes to get me at my place. Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy, like a filly who is ready for the race."

Around 11:30, Rachel and her crew leave the barn and make their way through Oklahoma, then cross Union Avenue and head to the monitoring barn. Coming from the opposite direction, Zenyatta eyes the new surroundings as she makes her way to the dreaded barn that has already compromised the chances of the Shirreffs-trained Giacomo and Tiago in the Belmont Stakes. A wary Shirreffs keeps a close eye on her, but so far, she seems to be taking it all in stride (how's that for the power of positive thinking?).

As the day wears on, the anticipation grows, as does the late-arriving crowd. This is finally going to happen. Who will be the favorite? How will the race play out? Which filly will reign supreme at day's end?

Despite the verbal wars of the past, the crowd for the most part is respectful to those in the opposing camp. It is Saratoga after all. There are a few zealots on both sides who engage in some minor oral skirmishes, but there are many in attendance who love both fillies and just want a true, safe race to see once and for all who is Queen of the Turf. Although there are a number of hard-core New Yorkers who have adopted Rachel, the Big Apple also has spawned quite a few Zenyatta fans as well, and the Mega Mare has lured thousands of her loyal legions from California. Saratoga is mainly a vacationer's melting pot, so the entire country is well represented.

Finally, it is time for the feature. Here they come down the horse path, as the crowd, which has been lined up 10 deep for the past half hour and longer, form a gauntlet of star struck admirers, armed with an assortment of still and video cameras and cell phones of all shapes and sizes. All are aimed at Rachel and Zenyatta. As both fillies enter the paddock they are given a rousing ovation. Small children sit atop their parents' shoulders trying to get a look at their mom and dad's favorite horse, the one they've been told is the greatest filly of all time.

The paddock is jammed. This is the place to be, and you can barely get close to the saddling stalls. The designated trees for each filly are already surrounded by a large throng. Cameras are clicking at a frantic pace.

Then it is ‘Riders up!' Mike Smith and Calvin Borel sit proudly atop their noble steeds. Their blood is up and they can't wait to get it on. A chorus of cheers follows each horse around the paddock. They then explode into a glorious crescendo as Rachel and Zenyatta make their way on to the track.

The gate is brought into place. Palms are sweating. Hearts are beating out of the chest. The butterflies are churning. The crowd lets out one final roar as the horses enter the gate and Tom Durkin bellows "It is now Post time."

What's that you say? Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta might not even meet at Saratoga? Sorry about that. I guess it was just a dream.

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