Track Guide: SaratogaBy Teresa Genaro, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
When: Summer Meet (Mid-July through Labor Day weekend)
Updated for 2017
Day after day, week after week, Saratoga attracts what few racing meets do: a big crowd every day. Arguably the most popular racing meet in the country, Saratoga appeals to the casual fan and the serious gambler, to families and crowds of friends out for a day of gambling and socializing.
Though little of Saratoga remains from that first 1864 season at the intersection of East and Union Avenues, visitors to the track will see and sit in the 1892 grandstand and walk among buildings more than 100 years old. The grandstand and clubhouse, the most recent addition to which was constructed in 1965, are open air and lack air-conditioning, a boon on a perfect Adirondack afternoon, a curse on the steamy days for which Saratoga is famous.
Racing’s royalty — through pedigree or wealth — populate the small, wooden clubhouse boxes; clubhouse and grandstand seats are also available. Those who care more about comfort than racing can rent one of the few luxury suites, air-conditioned and situated on the first turn, offering a limited view of most of the races.
Though no shortage of people get dressed up to “go racing” at Saratoga, the vibe is decidedly casual; shorts are as ubiquitous as heels, and the Old Spa welcomes both the scions of racing families and the rookies who aren’t sure where the finish line is.
The highlight of the Saratoga meet is the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes, named in honor of the man instrumental in bringing racing to Saratoga Springs and the first president of the Saratoga Association, which oversaw the track until 1955. 2017 marks the 148th running of the Travers, which has been won by such notable horses as Man o’War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Alydar (via disqualification of Affirmed), and Easy Goer. In 2015, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah suffered his only defeat of the year in the Travers.
The oldest race for fillies in the country is the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama, run the week before the Travers. Inaugurated in 1872, it’s been won by Miss Woodford, Beldame, Maskette, Shuvee, Mom’s Command, Sky Beauty, and Silverbulletday, all of which have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, which sits right across Union Avenue from the track. In recent years, Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar have found their way to the Alabama winner’s circle.
In 2016, Saratoga boasts a schedule of 36 graded stakes races, 18 of them Grade 1. Notable races for 2-year-olds include the Grade 3 Sanford and Grade 1 Hopeful for colts, and the Grade 3 Schuylerville and the Grade 1 Spinaway for fillies.
For turf horses, Saratoga offers the Grade 1 Diana for older fillies and mares and the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational for older males, among other graded stakes options.
Steeplechase races will be run on Thursdays, with the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers’ is scheduled for August 24th at 2 3/8 miles.
The first Thoroughbred meet was held in Saratoga in August of 1863, on the grounds of the trotting races that had been going on in the town for several decades.
Already a summer destination for the well-heeled, Saratoga was known for its architecture and spas: the mineral springs on which the town sits were reputed to have salubrious qualities, and visitors came in herds every summer, to indulge in the baths, to take the waters, and to socialize.
John Morrissey, the child of Irish immigrants, grew up in Troy, New York, not far from Saratoga. A gambler and a prize fighter, he opened casinos in New York City before setting his sights back upstate, establishing two casinos in Saratoga. One of them, in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park, still stands and is now the home of the Saratoga History Museum. Knowing a good opportunity when he saw one, and looking for a way to amuse his casino customers during the day, Morrissey guessed rightly that wealthy summer Saratogians would welcome enthusiastically the chance to bring their horses to the Old Spa for bragging rights and a little gambling.
Coordinating with New York businessmen William Travers, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Leonard Jerome, among others, Morrissey staged the first racing meeting from August 3 to August 8, 1863, on the grounds of what is now the Oklahoma training facility, on the old trotting track. It was such a success that a group of businessmen and horsemen came together to purchase the land across Union Avenue, and with few exceptions, Thoroughbreds have come to Saratoga every summer since.
No meetings were held in 1896 due to financial difficulty, poor management and a conflict with The Jockey Club. Racing was cancelled in 1911 and 1912, when state anti-gambling laws led to suspension of racing until May of 1913, and World War II halted racing from 1943 to 1945.
This year, the 149th racing meeting will be held at Saratoga. The meet was a week or less until 1870 and has been held at various lengths through its existence; it currently runs 40 days, from mid-July until Labor Day, with Tuesdays dark each week.
Saratoga offers a variety of seating options, from high-end and expensive to rustic and nearly free.
At the top end of the scale, Saratoga offers a limited number of luxury suites, situated at the first turn. They are one of few air-conditioned areas open to the public, and while they offer a magnificent view of the track, sitting there means that you’ll only see horses actually running in a race that’s longer than 7 furlongs. Your primary view of horses will be of the gallop-out, as you’re sitting beyond the finish line.
But if you want food service, air conditioning, and a private deck, the suites are the place to be. (Pricing and details scroll down)
Boxes: Clubhouse boxes are available by subscription or by the day. Each box seats five people, and waiter service is available for food and drink. Each box is equipped with a television.
Neither jeans nor shorts are permitted in the boxes, and men are required to wear jackets (though on very hot days, ushers have been known to relax the jacket requirement).
Seats: Clubhouse seats are available through Ticketmaster in advance of the meet or daily when available. Day-of seats go on sale at the on-site ticket booth at 9 a.m.
Neat casual wear is appropriate attire for clubhouse seats; jeans and shorts are permitted, as are small coolers.
Clubhouse seating is also available in the track’s restaurants (see Food & Drink).
Grandstand seats are available through Ticketmaster in advance of the meet or daily when available. The major difference between clubhouse seats (not the boxes) and grandstand seats is the distance from the finish line. The dress code is pretty much the same, in practice if not in policy; the price in the grandstand is lower than in the clubhouse, and as in the clubhouse, small coolers are permitted
All seats in the clubhouse and grandstand require a ticket and are generally in high demand.
Depending on availability, grandstand and clubhouse seats are on sale beginning at 9 a.m. each day at Gate A on Union Avenue (7 a.m. on Travers Day, though tickets are in scant supply for that day).
Grandstand seats are $15 on weekdays and $20 on weekends; clubhouse seats are $23 and $28. Seats are often available, though they are hard to come by on big race days.
Tickets for the Whitney Racing Festival on Saturday, August 5 are $30 for the grandstand and $48 for the clubhouse. On Travers Day, Saturday, August 26, tickets are listed on the NYRA website as sold.
In the past, the ticket office has been accommodating to those who purchase tickets ahead of time but lose or forget them. That accommodation may not be likely this summer, so make sure you’ve got your tickets when you arrive at the gate.
Top of the Stretch picnic area
Groups of up to 48 can reserve an enclosed picnic area at the top of the stretch through NYRA group sales (scroll down for details and prices).
Backyard and apron
For the cost of grandstand admission alone ($5), visitors can grab a seat or picnic table in the expansive and beautiful backyard or at the top of the stretch, or on the benches on the apron.
The majority of picnic tables are first come, first served, and it’s not uncommon on any racing day to see people lined up outside well in advance of the 7 a.m. opening for the chance to dash inside and snag a table. On big race days, all 950 tables are taken within minutes.
Each day, 100 picnic tables near the paddock are available for reservation. Reservations can be made through Ticketmaster and cost $60 on weekdays, $90 on weekends, and $160 on Travers Day; the price includes the price of admission. Each table accommodates six people.
The apron in front of the clubhouse and grandstand provides dozens of benches; visitors who choose these spots should bring plenty of sunscreen, because you’ll be in the direct sun all day. Many visitors also bring their own folding chairs and set them up at various places around the track.
Coolers are welcome at Saratoga in the backyard, on the apron, and at the top of the stretch. Food and beverages of all sorts can be brought it, but glass is prohibited. Expect your cooler to be searched when you enter.
In the backyard and on the benches, Saratoga has a long tradition of respect for saved seats. Marking your territory with a newspaper, a tablecloth, or a chair generally means that that seats is yours for the day.
All areas of Saratoga Race Course are equipped with wireless access.
Saratoga offers seating in a number of restaurants, among them the Turf Terrace, the Club Terrace, the Fourstardave, and the Easy Goer. Reservations are advisable in all of them.
The Fourstardave Café, formerly known as the lower Carousel and recently renovated, is named for the horse that won a race at Saratoga every year from 1987 to 1994; the name was chosen by a fan vote. Marketed as a sports bar, it shows primarily racing, mostly of Saratoga (it doesn’t offer a view of the track), and offers tables that accommodate two, four, and six people and can be reserved ahead of time through Ticketmaster.
Tables of two can be reserved for $30 on weekdays, $40 on weekends, and $80 on Travers Day. Tables of four can be reserved for $60, $80, and $140, and tables of six for $90, $120, and $180. No outside food or beverages are permitted.
Diners in the Fourstardave will also be able to order from a number of food vendors in other areas of the track, like The Lobster Hut and Hattie’s, with full table service.
A recent addition to the track is the Easy Goer, named for the 1989 Travers winner. The Easy Goer, on the second floor of the grandstand above the Fourstardave, will offer a buffet and a prix fixe menu. Reservations are accepted, as are walk-ins if tables are available.
The cost is $58 per person on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, $72 on Fridays and Saturdays, and $95 on Travers Day.
Groups can be accommodated in the Easy Goer, the At the Rail Pavilion, and the Top of the Stretch picnic area.
Food stands and bars are scattered throughout the track, some offering usual track fare (hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn), other offering a more varied menu (lobster rolls, a clam bar, burgers from the Shake Shack). The Lobster Hut, located on the ground floor of the grandstand, may be the best bargain at the racetrack.
The Shake Shack area was opened in 2010; in addition to the well-known burger joint, visitors will find El Verano Taqueria, Box Frites and The Post a bar, situated next to the paddock. The Saratoga Dog at Box Frites, which features crushed barbecue potato chips, scallions, and mustard sauce, is a winner.
Hattie’s Chicken Shack has been a Saratoga Springs staple since 1938; a few years ago, it brought its famous fried chicken (it beat Thoroughbred owner and NYRA board member Bobby Flay’s chicken in a 2006 Throwdown) to a stand at the racetrack, and its fried chicken sandwich gets rave reviews. Hattie’s devotees will find it on the ground floor of the grandstand, along with Shirley’s, a Saratoga staple for decades that will be offering poutine, among other snacks to trackgoers.
Taste NY, a statewide initiative to highlight New York State products, will offer craft beer on opening day and every Friday; On Saturdays and Sundays, Taste NY offers food, fashionartisan vendors, and on Thursdays, wine, spirits, and cider are featured. Taste NY events take place in the Saratoga Pavilion on the backyard side of the grandstand towards the top of the stretch.
Like much of the rest of Saratoga, the restrooms evoke quaintness rather than modernity. As at any public place where it’s hot and people are drinking, lines can get long; common sense suggests avoiding the bathrooms just after the end of race, or just after prices are posted.
Restrooms are situated throughout the grandstand and clubhouse, and in several locations in the backyard.
The women’s rooms at Saratoga all have attendants to keep the place clean and keep the supply of candy and mints, hand lotion, and hair spray well-stocked. A gratuity for the attendant is part of the Saratoga experience.
For over a hundred years, horses were saddled in Saratoga’s backyard, under the trees; no fences or other barriers separated the horses from the customers who wanted to see them.
Security concerns ended this practice in the mid-1980s, and since then, horses have been saddled in the paddock adjacent to the backyard, just behind the clubhouse.
Saratoga’s paddock is legendarily beautiful, and before each race, hundreds of fans line up to get a look at the horses, to take photos, and to assess the horse’s ability to win the race, though in recent years, customer access to paddock views has been impeded by encroaching hospitality tents, a set for NYRA’s television productions, and reserved picnic tables.
Entrance to the paddock is restricted to those with a credential or a badge.
Saratoga doesn’t offer the sort of simulcast area to which frequent track visitors might be accustomed. Televisions throughout the track and in the backyard will show races from other tracks, and the television above the bar at The Post is often tuned to Del Mar.
You are likely to be able to find a television tuned to your track of choice, but it might take a bit of wandering, and there is no central area where you can easily simulcast multiple tracks.
One of the many great things about Saratoga is that it’s not only accepted, but expected, that you talk about racing all the time. Saratoga encourages total immersion, so if a full race card isn’t enough to satisfy you, you’ve got plenty of other ways to get your fix.
Breakfast at the track
Saratoga in the morning is a must for any visitor. The gates open at 7 am every day except Tuesday, and visitors can sit in the Porch restaurant and partake of the reasonably priced buffet (scroll down for details and pricing) while watching morning workouts.
Alternatively, you can sit in the empty clubhouse with breakfast from the Dunkin Donuts located on the grounds. A less expensive option is to stop at one of the many terrific local bakeries or delis and bring your own breakfast to eat as you watch from the boxes near the finish line.
An on-track host narrates the workouts, offering tidbits of Saratoga history, trivia contests, and help identifying jockeys, trainers, and horses as they go by. Trackside parking is $12 during the week and $15 on weekends, but if you get your car out of the parking lot by 10 am, when the track is cleared, the full parking fee is refunded.
Whitney Viewing Stand
In 2013, as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga, NYRA opened the Whitney Viewing Stand. On the grounds of the Oklahoma training facility just inside the East Avenue entrance, the structure recalls the old judges’ stand that stood on the main track in the 19th century.
Long closed to the public for morning workouts, the Oklahoma is now accessible to visitors, opening at daybreak at the first horses take to the track. Visitors are not permitted in the barn areas, but they may watch workouts in the area near the viewing stand.
Saratoga native and NYRA race analyst Andy Serling handicaps the full card every day from the paddock-side set, offering selections and wagering advice. He’ll be joined by a variety of racing analysts, including Gabby Gaudet, Ernie Munick, David Aragona, Maggie Wolfendale, Anthony Stabile, Paul LoDuca, and Tom Amoss. During the racecard, a variety of analysts offer insights and observations before each race.
Low Roller Handicapping Challenge
Take your shot with a $40 buy-in ($30 goes to your own live bankroll, $10 to the prize pool) every Sunday and Monday in the Lower Carousel near the Fourstardave Sports Bar. Official rules (pdf).
NYRA Bets Squad
New this year will be the NYRA Bets Squad, available to help educate customers on wagering, including how to read past performances and use the many self-service betting terminals throughout the track. The Bets Squad will be stationed in the NYRA Bets Lounge on Saturdays and in gazebos on the second floor of the grandstand and outside the paddock entrance through the meet. Bets Squad members will also be available for individual sessions.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Situated right across the street from the track, the Museum is a terrific way to spend an hour or two. The Hall of Fame is a must for lovers of racing history (you could easily spend an hour or more just looking at the plaques of the inductees), and the Museum itself offers a variety of art and history exhibitions. The adventurous can get aboard a mechanical horse and put your jockey skills to the test.
Every race day: Take a free 45-minute tour of the backstretch. No reservations are accepted; tram tours begin at 7:30 am and depart every 15 minutes until approximately 9 am. Tours leave from the Wright St. entrance to the track, near the clubhouse. No tours on Travers Day or Labor Day. You can find more details here (scroll down).
Jockeys are celebrities at Saratoga. They walk along a horse path to get to the paddock and along a specially designated path after the race from the track; both go through the crowd, and it’s not uncommon to see children (and adults!) asking for autographs. Most jockeys are accommodating and friendly (though not all are); autograph-seekers should be mindful that the jockeys are at work and probably don’t have time to stop and talk. It’s also probably best not to ask for an autograph after a bad ride or the jockey’s been aboard a beaten favorite!
Walk of Fame
In 2013, NYRA held its first Red Jacket ceremony, honoring jockeys John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey, and Angel Cordero. Each year since, three racing luminaries have been recognized for their contributions to the sport of horse racing, and last year, NYRA built its Walk of Fame along the main path into the track from the Union Avenue entrance. This year, the photographs and text will be augmented by interactive video terminals, at which racing fans will be able to call up renewals of the Travers and Whitney Stakes since 1973.
2014 Red Jacket honorees: Allen Jerkens, D. Wayne Lukas, Tom Durkin
2015 Red Jacket honorees: Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Marylou Whitney
2016 Red Jacket honorees: Cot Campbell and Bill Mott
Fasig-Tipton yearling sales have been held at Saratoga since 1917, and legends and champions have passed through the ring here: Man o’War, Raise a Native, Sky Beauty, Open Mind. More recently, last year’s champions American Pharoah, Tepin, Stellar Wind, and Songbird are all alumni of this Saratoga sale.
This year’s sales take place on August 7, 8, 12, and 13 at the Fasig-Tipton grounds on East Avenue, just a block from the track. Horses will begin to arrive a week or so before the sales and be stabled on the sales grounds, which are free and open to the public, as are the snack bars, bar, and restaurant.
While consignors are known to accommodate visitors’ requests to see a particular yearling, bear in mind and be considerate of their primary responsibility, which is to potential buyers.
Visitors are also welcome on the grounds during the sales themselves, but seating in the pavilion is reserved for those wishing to purchase a pricey equine baby. Those wishing to see the colts and fillies up close can do so at the walking ring behind the pavilion; a PA system and multiple video screens transmit the action from inside.
Saratoga Race Course is located in the heart of Saratoga Springs, close to many residential neighborhoods and downtown. It’s no more than a 30-minute walk (and often less, depending on your pace) from downtown.
All gates at the track have bike racks.
Parking can be a challenge and is limited on-track. Preferred parking at the track, which requires a short walk, is $10 on weekdays and $12 on weekends, with increased prices for Whitney and Travers Days. Trackside parking is $12 during the week, $15 on weekends, and $20 for the Whitney and the Travers, while valet parking is $32 (weekdays), $45 (weekends), and $50 (Whitney/Travers).
Free parking is available across the street at the Oklahoma training facility, but it can involve a bit of a walk. Locals sell parking in their driveways and yards; prices vary depending on the day of the week, proximity to the track, and the stakes races scheduled for the day.
Back this year is SpaceDerby, a web-based application that permits customers to reserve a parking place ahead of time; the program is designed by a Saratoga native and unaffiliated with NYRA.
Gates open daily at 7 a.m. and admission at that time is free, but on every day except Travers Day, the track is cleared of visitors at 10 am. Patrons can return at 11, when the track officially opens.
On Travers Day, the gates officially open at 7 a.m.; there is no trackside breakfast that day, and admission fees are collected when the gates open.
Trailways from NYC to Saratoga Springs