Richard Migliore once told me the off-season was a wonderful time to visit Saratoga. "When the wind blows the leaves piled up on the far turn," he said, "it's easy to imagine they're being scattered by the ghostly hoofs of the champions who raced there." Last weekend, for the first time, I ventured north. With the backstretch closing on November 17, squirrels easily outnumbered the horses. There were dozens of the feisty little creatures scampering about Saturday morning, leaping from rafter to rafter in the deserted barns or scampering up the leafless trees, angrily chittering at the strangers walking by.
The stall where Curlin reigned all summer was shuttered, the shedrow barren; Commentator's stall was empty, as was those of Indian Blessing and Ginger Punch.
Only a handful of horses were on the track at 7 o'clock; an outrider sat silently on his pony near the gap, and while it was warm and there was a familiar fog hanging over the turf course and the infield, it was more of a gray and desolate shroud than the magical mist of the summer months. And yet, it was not at all depressing, just ... different. There were all sorts of interesting discoveries; a pile of horseshoes behind Nick Zito's barn (who had they belonged to?), a plaque hidden behind a bush near the blacksmith's office commemorating late comrades, the detritus of scores of backstretch workers piled outside the dorms. Here, hoofprints in the mud, leading off to somewhere, over there, a curry comb, forgotten in the move. It was just an empty stage, waiting for the players to spring back into life, in hibernation for the long winter ahead.