Track Guide: SaratogaBy Teresa Genaro, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
When: Summer Meet
Mid-July through Labor Day weekend
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 the casual fan and the serious gambler, to families and crowds of friends out for a day of socializing and gambling.
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.
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 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. 2014 marks the 145th 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.
The oldest race for fillies in the country is the Grade 1 Alabama, run the week before the Travers. Run for the first time 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 winnerâ€™s circle.
In 2014, Saratoga boasts a schedule of 35 graded stakes races, 17 of them Grade 1’s. 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 for older males, among other graded stakes options.
Steeplechase races are run as the first race on the card on Wednesday and Thursdays, ahead of the usual 1:00 pm post time. The Grade 1 New York Turf Writersâ€™ Cup will be run on August 21at 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 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 thug, a gambler, a prize fighter, he opened casinos in New York City before setting his sights back upstate, establishing a casino (still standing, though no longer a casino) in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park. Knowing a good opportunity when he saw one, Morrissey guessed rightly that wealthy summer Saratogians would welcome enthusiastically the chance to bring their horses here 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 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; in 1911 and 1912, when state anti-gambling laws led to suspension of racing from 1943 to 1945 because of World War II; 2014 will be the 146th racing meeting 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 late 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.
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 from which one can bet with a NYRA Rewards card.
Neither jeans nor shorts are permitted in the boxes, and men are required to wear jackets.
Seats: Clubhouse seats are available by mail order in advance of the meet or daily when available.
Neat casual wear is appropriate attire for clubhouse seats; jeans and shorts are permitted.
Clubhouse seating is also available in the track’s restaurants (see Food & Drink).
Grandstand seats are available by mail order 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.
All seats in the clubhouse and grandstand require a ticket and are generally in high demand. Visitors can mail in an application for seats that is usually due in January of the year of the meet; the application is available on the website of the New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct.
Depending on availability, grandstand and clubhouse seats are on sale beginning at 9 am each day at Gate A on Union Avenue. The price of the ticket does not include the price of admission to the racetrack (in 2014, $5 for the grandstand, $8 for the clubhouse, more on Travers Day). Seats are often available, though they are hard to come by on big race days.
In the past the ticket office has been accommodating to those who purchase tickets ahead of time but leave them home. You will likely need identification and the credit card with which you purchased the tickets, but the office can reissue your tickets.
Top of the Stretch picnic area
Groups of up to 48 can reserve a picnic area at the top of the stretch through NYRA group sales. Be a sun-lover if you go this route: the picnic tables are in full sun through the day; they are on asphalt and not grass; and they lack umbrellas.
Backyard and apron
For the cost of admission alone, visitors can grab a seat or picnic table in the expansive and beautiful backyard, at the top of the stretch, or on the apron.
All 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 am opening for the chance to dash inside and snag a table. On big race days, every table is taken within minutes.
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, with high-traffic areas of the track said to be upgraded in 2014.
Saratoga offers seating in a number of restaurants, among them the Turf Terrace, the Club Terrace, the At The Rail pavilion, and the Carousel. Reservations are advisable in all of them.
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 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. Box Frites offers a special 150 Anniversary Dog to deliciously commemorate Saratoga’s 150th anniversary.
Restaurant Row features the fare of a variety local establishments. When Restaurant Row appeared a few years ago, it was a welcome addition to the dining landscape at the track, though some patrons found the offerings a bit pricey.
Hattie’s Chicken Shack has been a Saratoga 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. Its fried chicken sandwich gets rave reviews. This year, Hattie’s devotees will find it on the east side of the Carousel, along with Shirley’s, a Saratoga staple for decades that will be offering poutine, among other snacks to trackgoers.
The beer garden, opened in 2012 just behind on the Carousel, is back again in 2014. Taste New York will offer wine and cheese tastings each Thursday; craft beer and cider tastings each Friday, and specialty foods each Sunday.
For those inclined to a less heady beer experience, $5 domestic drafts will be on offer throughout the track.
Like much of the rest of Saratoga, the restrooms evoke quaintness rather than modernity, though plans were announced earlier this year for updates. As at any public place where itâ€™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 small tip 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. Entrance to the paddock requires 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 will show races from other tracks, and the ground floor of the Carousel has banks of televisions for those who prefer the long-distance product to the local one.
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 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 local bakeries or delis and bring your own breakfast to eat as you watch from the boxes near the finish line.
Mary Ryan, a former exercise rider, narrates the workouts, offering tidbits of Saratoga history, trivia contests, and help identifying jockeys, trainers, and horses as they go by. Trackside parking is $10, 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.
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 (pdf) and put your jockey skills to the test.
Saratoga offers backstretch tours every day except Tuesday. The National Museum of Racing offers tours of the Oklahoma training track.
Saratoga native and NYRA race analyst Andy Serling handicaps the full card every day in the Carousel (ground floor of the grandstand), offering his selections and wagering advice. He is joined by NYRAâ€™s Jason Blewitt twice a week, with and Timeform USâ€™s Mike Beer sitting in on the other four race days.
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!
This year’s sales take place on August 4, 5, 9 and 10 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 also have bike racks.
Parking can be a challenge. Trackside parking is $10 but sells out fast; free parking at the Oklahoma is available but 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. New 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 at 7 am 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 am; there is no trackside breakfast that day, and admission fees are collected when the gates open.