At a Track Called Saratoga…

August 28, 2015

The Saratoga Race Course host it’s most famous race—the 146th running of the Travers Stakes—tomorrow evening, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the field.

Having grown up just south of Saratoga, NY, I spent endless childhood summer days sitting in the majestic track’s picnic area, and just as many teenage summer nights bar-hopping the small-town, mardi-gras-like atmosphere of downtown Saratoga. You get some funny looks in most of the rest of the country when it’s revealed that you know how to calculate the payout on a $2 exacta ((total exacta pool – takeout)/(total winning dollars bet * 2)) or can name the horse that beat Secretariat in the ’73 Whitney (Onion), but it’s neither trashy nor rare to know horse racing where I come from.

I have always loved everything Saratoga. The track. The town. The people. The races. The picnic area. The fancy clothes. The sounds. The smells. The horses. The clubhouse. The paddock. The beautiful afternoons. The walk downtown after the races end. The restaurants. The bars. The horsemen. The horse talk. The kids selling tip sheets. The spinners collecting t-shirts. The fat men smoking cigars and telling anyone in earshot that “they almost had the triple!” All of it.

But I love Saratoga the most in the morning. The races don’t start until 1pm, but you can get into the track as early as you can get out of bed. There’s nothing quite like arriving at the track at 8am, grabbing some picnic tables, playing cards, reading the newspaper, wandering the clubhouse, walking downtown for breakfast, handicapping the races, and shooting the breeze with your buddies as the morning rolls by.

Saratoga is, of course, known as the “graveyard of the favorites.” Secretariat lost to Onion there in the ’73 Whitney. Jim Dandy beat Gallant Fox in the ’30 Travers.  And, of cousre, Man O’ War. When I was a boy, the most famous TV ad for Saratoga was a shot of the sun coming up over the practice track, and a gravely-voiced announcer slowly reciting the famous spine-tingler: Man…O’….War. Greatest…horse…of…all…time. Started twenty-one races…Won twenty of them….His…only…loss? …To a horse…named…Upset…At a  track …. called … Saratoga! There’s really nothing quite like standing at the top of the empty grandstand in the morning and surveying the homestretch while you think about that commercial. Magic.

And so here’s a photo essay of the race course as many people have never seen it. Most of these photos were taken a decade ago, in a spat of twenty-something nostalgia, when I realized I would probably never again live near Saratoga, and would likely never visit the mighty racetrack more than once a season. Make sure you click on the pictures to blow them up, much of the beauty is in the details.

 The Oklahoma practice track, across the street from the picnic area and the main track, 6am. Although Saratoga is only open for six weeks each year (late July until Labor Day), many horses stable and train in Saratoga for longer stretches.

The spring inside the picnic area. 8am. You’ve never tasted such horrible water, or seen old men down such horrible water like it was the fountain of youth. Not a picnic table in sight at this hour.

One of the trackside restaurants in the clubhouse, with early morning handicappers surveying their racing forms. I swear to you, I have been to Saratoga Race Course hundreds of times, and I have never seen once shred of evidence that you can gain any handicapping edge by studying the Daily Racing Form. None.

The Turf Terrance restaurant in the clubhouse. Jackets required. Fancy hats optional. Political or other connections helpful.

Two horseplayers having breakfast trackside. I prefer Compton’s Diner down on Broadway to the breakfast at the track, but it is fun to watch the workouts while you read the paper and sip coffee. And If you ever want to see someone smoke a cigar at 8am, you’ve come to the right place.

Breakfast at the rail, watching a workout. Those “at the rail” style seats did not exist when I was a boy, but much like Fenway Park, Saratoga has been steadily enhanced over the past 20 years, largely without sacrificing it’s rustic 19th century charm. Like the famous saying goes, it’s not hard to get to Saratoga: you just drive 2 hours north from New York City, turn left off the highway, and go back about 100 years.

Betting windows in the picnic area. The track needs a lot of seasonal labor. Out in the stables, it’s almost entirely Hispanic immigrants. At the lemonade and ice cream stands, it’s almost universally teenagers. And behind the betting windows, it’s disproportionately public school teachers. I can remember going to place a bet once the summer after 9th grade, looking up, and seeing my English teacher. Yikes!

Betting windows in the clubhouse. Like most people at Saratoga, I’m not much of a horseplayer — I usually bet maybe $2-$5 on an given race — but at least I’m not a wimp. You should see my sister. Here standard bet is something like $2 on the favorite to show.

Bartender relaxing outside an empty clubhouse barroom, 10am.

Opening shop in the Carousel Restaurant.

The view from the clubhouse seats. It costs $5 to get into the track, and an additional $5 if you want to get into the clubhouse (neither admission gets you a seat). Throw on a $2 bet on 7 or 8 races, bring your own food and drinks, and it’s more or less the most entertainment you can buy for less than $25.

The picnic area begins to fill up. There are hundreds of actual picnic tables in the picnic area, but they go really fast (it’s first come, first serve), and so many people bring their own card tables, canopies, etc.

Those who prefer the benches start to filter in. Everyone who goes to the track does it differently, and no one can believe anyone else’s logistics make any sense. Some people just wander the whole time (insanity). Some like the benches (ditto). Some like buying seats in the clubhouse (ok). I’ve always been a picnic area guy: set up two bridge tables and a bunch of camping chairs, and use that as a home base from which to occasionally go to the rail, the clubhouse, etc.

The clubhouse entrance starts to get crowded

Programs for sale. These kids make a fortune. The norm at Saratoga is to never take your coin change when you buy something. So those kids are getting 50 cents tip on most programs. And they are selling hundreds of them in the span of about 2 hours. Needless to say, a summer job at the track is a highly prized possession for teenagers, and political connections are often used to obtain one.

The bands begin to play in the picnic area. Sometimes, Saratoga is so classy it hurts. Like the shaving equipment and free cologne in the picnic area men’s room. I’ve seen people stop and use the cologne, but I’ve never observed someone actually lather up for a shave.

Artwork row. I’ve always been tempted to buy an autographed copy of the iconic shot of Turcotte looking back from aboard Secretariat at the 1/16 pole at the ’73 Belmont. But I’ve never pulled the trigger on any racing memorabilia.

Cocktails. Liquor doesn’t sell that all that well at Saratoga Race Course, because (1) you can bring as much of your own as you want into the picnic area, and (2) the atmosphere at the track is a lot more family-friendly then you might otherwise imagine. On the other hand, the legal drinking age in the town of Saratoga during track season seems to be about 17, which makes sense because the legal gambling age at the track seems to be about 12. Family-friendly indeed!

To wit, this more or less standard picture from the picnic area.

The horses enter the paddock for race #1. Watching grown men scream encouragement to a horse as it walks by is both hilarious and scary. You go get ‘em, Mr Peanuts! One time!

Jockeys climb aboard. Watching grown men scream strategy to the jockeys is just plain hilarious. Don’t take him wide this trip, Robbie!

The grandstand and rail fill up. For a typical race, you need to get to the rail about 10 minutes before post if you want to be in the front row along the fence. I usually watch one or two races a day from the rail, one or two from the clubhouse, and the rest on the TV monitors in the picnic area.

Leaving the paddock for the track. One reason a racetrack doesn’t feel like a casino is that the gambling isn’t constant. There’s a solid half hour between races, so you have a lot of down time, which means you aren’t constantly thinking about or engaged in wagering.

Heading toward the starting gates. Obviously, there has been a lot of research done in the last 150 years on horse genetics. The thing that I can’t fathom is that they never figured out how to breed fast thoroughbrdeds that had ankles thicker than toothpicks.

The horses are in the gate. Tom Durkin has been making the calls at the track since I was about 10.  I was there on July 28, 2008 for his recent famous call on AARRRRRR! Sadly, he retired recently.

And they’re off!

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