SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Every trainer has at least one, and they sure can move. Occasionally they get in traffic trouble, but for the most part they move smoothly.
Allowance winner? Nope. Golf cart.
A visit to the grounds of Saratoga Race Course means, of course, seeing beautiful thoroughbreds exercising and running, but there are mornings when it seems there are as many golf carts as horses. It’s out of necessity, though, because Saratoga has challenges not found at other racetracks.
The New York Racing Association uses them for their many workers. Jockey agents use them to ferry their clients from barn to barn. Trainers use them to go to the main, Oklahoma training or Clare Court tracks, as well as to take owners to watch their horses work. Sometimes owners even bring their own.
“At Saratoga, it’s an absolute necessity,” trainer Gary Contessa said. “There are areas where they don’t allow automobiles. You’ve got barns and tracks on both sides of Union Avenue. You’ve got to bring horses or owners over. The only way to get around is on a cart.”
The man who sells and rents most of the carts for the agents and trainers — he doesn’t have NYRA’s contract — is Mike Grigely, of Edgewood Golf Cart Sales and Rentals. A golf pro at Edgewood Golf Club in Southwick, Mass., for the past 34 years, he’s turned golf cart sales and service for racetrackers into a second business.
“I got into the track almost five years ago,” Grigely recalled. “I was playing golf with trainer Stanley Hough, and I love horses, and I said, ‘Stanley, who’s doing golf carts for the trainers and agents?’ And he said, ‘No one, really. A few guys have them here and there.’ So I said I’d be interested and he said, ‘I’ll set you up with an agent,’ which was Mike Kelly, who had Javier Castellano’s book at the time.”
After just a few months, Grigely’s name had spread as the man to see about a cart.
Grigely did not want to provide a cost for the carts, saying it varied depending on number of seats and whether someone was renting for a week or a season or even buying it.
Beside the fact that trainers’ barns are located everywhere from Gridley Avenue and Saratoga Casino and Raceway to the main track’s backstretch and the Oklahoma Training Track annex, Saratoga does have restrictions that make carts useful. A big portion of the road on the backside of the main track, as well as many areas on the Oklahoma side, are closed to auto traffic.
“Saratoga is unique; it’s a city going on back there,” Grigely said. “They have multiple places they have to be, some have stables at different spots. Todd Pletcher trains 120 horses. He’s got to train multiple sets a morning on different tracks. He’s got to meet with owners and take them to watch works. He’s got to be four places at once and he can’t get to a lot of spots by car. I filled that void. ... I’m just 140 miles away and what they really appreciate is the service I provide them.”
One example Grigely gave is that recently one of Pletcher’s assistants called him with a problem at 5:30 a.m. He took the call and solved the problem.Grigely makes contacts in the winter, then when Saratoga rolls around, he’ll stay overnight in Saratoga and go back and forth to Massachusetts if he needs to.
“I probably go real hard for two and a half months,” said Grigely, who said he is largely a one-man business, occasionally using some of his help to deliver the carts.
While trainers know how to examine horses and train them, not all are adept at riding them. Some trainers, such as D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott and Leah Gyarmati, still prefer to hop on an exercise pony and get on the track themselves.
“I prefer the pony because I like the horses better, but also I feel I’m more useful to my racehorses if I’m on the pony,” said Gyarmati, who nonetheless owns one golf cart and rents another for specific owners during Saratoga. “If I need to lead off or if I have to go around the track with them, I can do that. On a golf cart, you can go to the rail and you can stand there and watch, that’s it. I can be more proactive with the training if I can be on the pony.”
Gyarmati, however, knows the cart’s usefulness.
“My help uses them a lot,” she said. “We’ll have to go to the kitchen to get bags of ice for the horses; laundry; back and forth to their room. Or if you have a horse you have to put all the way across the track, you know, it’s good to have a cart. And for racing, it’s good because if you have to get around in a car when there’s a lot of traffic, it takes forever to go 5 feet here sometimes.”
There have been times when going those 5 feet in a cart led to a problem. On July 30, 2010, the Saratoga Springs Police Department arrested trainer Linda Rice for driving her unlicensed golf cart down Nelson Avenue in order to get to the main track. Rice’s barn is located about 150 yards from the track entrance, but it does have a crossing to Clare Court, from where you can access the track. She was ticketed and the cart was towed.
On Aug. 7, 2011, owner/breeder Herbert Schwartz was hit in his cart head-on by another cart driven by Jason Beides, agent for jockey Jose Lezcano, on the road of the main course’s backstretch. Schwartz suffered a head injury and was treated and released at Saratoga Hospital.
Then, there was the time years ago that Gyarmati chuckles about now, but led to a policy change at her barn.
“One year I think we were stabled on the annex and I had a guy working for me that used the cart to go, I don’t know where, maybe near the Rec. Center,” Gyarmati said. “People were drinking and a fight broke out. He jumped in the cart and took off and someone chased him. And he tried to — I don’t know what he was thinking — he tried to go up the stairs of the little cottage where they happened to be sleeping onto the porch. He tried to go up the stairs on the cart. That wasn’t cheap, either, to fix. After that I told everybody they can’t use it in the evening. It’s only for use during work hours.”
Contessa and Gyarmati said NYRA security might warn individual drivers to slow down, but that it’s never issued any memos or instituted policy on golf cart usage.
For Grigely, providing the racetrackers with carts has been far more fun than work.
“It started off as a little side business, and it’s blossomed,” Grigely said. “I’ve gotten to be part of the big show. I even played on the PGA Tour (in the 1987 Greater Hartford Open). But if you asked players on the Tour now, none of them would ever have heard of me. Yet I’m on the biggest stage in horse racing at Saratoga.”