Monday, July 23, 2018
Pondering the Allure of Saratoga

Horse racing fans are always up for a good debate over the relative merits of the "big three" racing meets... Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar, that sacred triumvirate of quality, competitive racing and big crowds. It's kind of a false debate though since each of the three venues presents a unique racing experience unto itself. Not that I'm looking to resurrect that debate here mind you. This is all about Saratoga. Any subsequent comparisons to the Keeneland and Del Mar meets are for illustrative purposes only.

IMG_0401To put it bluntly, if you're into horse racing but have yet to visit Saratoga Race Course, what are you waiting for? This year would be a great time to make your debut visit too, what with the racetrack celebrating its 150th anniversary and all. Stop and think about 150 years ago. In 1863 Saratoga racegoers would have been chatting up the just-concluded Battle of Gettysburg while standing in line for a Ulysses S. Grant bobblehead.

So what's the big deal with horse racing at Saratoga anyway? What makes it so special?

Any discussion has to start with the setting. Saratoga Race Course is tucked neatly into Saratoga Springs, New York, a fairly small upstate town. But the racetrack is so much more than "in" Saratoga Springs. More aptly, it is like a vital organ pumping life into the community. Take away the racetrack and the town would be unrecognizable. Take away the town and the racetrack would be unrecognizable.

The implications of this are many. For one, many racegoers simply walk to the track. Saratoga is likely the most pedestrian-friendly racetrack you'll ever visit. And I have to think many do make that walk because the giant sea of parked vehicles you might see at Del Mar, Keeneland, or Santa Anita is not a feature of Saratoga. The parking lots at Saratoga exist but somehow melt away into the leafy environment.

Another implication of Saratoga's setting is that you might, if staying in town, not drive your car again until you're ready to leave. The lively downtown area is not that far from the track. And a good walk never hurt anybody.

By comparison, visitors to Del Mar and Keeneland are well-advised to have those car keys handy. I don't think you can walk to Keeneland unless you've spent the night in a horse stall. Plus you'll want to explore the surrounding horse farms and white fences a bit anyway to get the whole Bluegrass experience. It's always a treat to watch horses romp playfully across a pasture in slow motion while emotive background music plays. Similarly, Del Mar visitors will want to delve into the abundance of attractions in San Diego County. There's so much to see and do there, especially in a Clark Griswold kind of way.

Let's talk food. Another notable feature that makes Saratoga special is the racetrack food. Can a racetrack really boast about food and beverage options? Saratoga can.

It all stems from a relatively recent and very well-conceived NYRA initiative. The Saratoga Springs restauraunt scene is sizable and interesting and NYRA has worked with local restaurateurs to bring popular components of the local dining scene trackside. You can't walk very far on racetrack grounds before finding a food vendor. All of the usual kinds of fare you might expect to find are there, as well as an equal number of unexpected items. Just look for the longest line, try whatever it is they're offering, and then experiment with other types of cuisine. And at least one trip to the venerable chowder bar is mandatory.

Cold beer at a reasonable price? Yes, sir. You can even haul in your own refreshment of choice in a cooler, no glass bottles please. Try that at Royal Ascot.

Let's talk about the weather. The weather makes Saratoga special too. This is where devotees of sun-splashed Del Mar think they have it all over everyone else. Now you might ask, "How can you beat 77 degrees and sunny every day?" Well, you really can't of course. But I ask you: Does this kind of "sameness" really serve the human spirit?

Consider the weather at Saratoga. Blistering heat, unbearable humidity, torrential rain and thunderstorms, idyllic San Diego-ish days, and chilly days. Now that's interesting. I've yet to see a snow flurry at Saratoga but there is always a first time.

IMG_2It can get hot at Saratoga. Not lazy summer day hot, but surface of Venus hot. You need to be ready for this if you're there during one of those times. You need to have a plan. You need to literally keep your cool. Your wagering success depends on it.

The patron standing in front of you at the betting machine, in the early stages of heat stroke, randomly punching in numbers, is not your opponent. You already have their money. The stay-at-home bettor relaxing in air-conditioned comfort and sipping a cool drink is your real opponent. They have clear heads and full control of their senses.

What to do? Well, the temptation to take a dip in the infield pond may be overwhelming. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS. Bad things will happen to you. First, you will be savaged by territorial infield geese in plain view of horrified onlookers. Next, NYRA security will whisk you away, wet and bleeding, to a table in a windowless room where Andy Serling will go through that day's card race-by-race and ridicule all of your bets. Even your winning bets.

Do something though. Dip your head in a random cooler, potato salad be damned. INSIDER TIP: There used to be, and may still be, a gigantic fan in a men's room near the top of the stretch. It looks to have been salvaged from a World War II-era battleship. It can cool you off in short order if it doesn't decapitate you.

Rainy days are but a nuisance, unless a thunderstorm drops an inch per minute. I've seen rainwater rushing through downtown so powerfully you expect to see salmon jumping. And yes, the occasional hurricane.

But all is not what it seems. In the 2004 Travers Stakes, Birdstone made his first start back since denying universally-loved Smarty Jones the Triple Crown. To this day, there are people who think the sky turning black prior to the race was weather-related.

The variety of weather that visits Saratoga brings context to the racing and frames the memory. More practically, it introduces handicapping angles that simply don't exist at Del Mar or Keeneland, for example. The weather impacts the track surface, both dirt and turf, which in turn may impact the way horses run. I've always welcomed this added handicapping dimension, but to each his own.

Let's talk about the Saratoga backyard. Imagine a pastoral, wooded, park-like setting peppered with picnic tables that stretches to the horizon. Children playing, the sound of a guitar in the distance. Well, the backyard is nothing like that. During the busiest racing days it looks an awful lot like a densely-packed refugee camp. Still, it has a charm all its own and makes Saratoga special.

Those picnic tables in the backyard are a topic unto themselves. It's first-come, first-served to secure one, and it's serious business. Tables are reserved by placing tablecloths, coolers and other items on them. I've always wondered what kind of minimal item would suffice in reserving a table. One could experiment I suppose by dropping by the track early and placing a half-eaten doughnut on a certain table. Returning later to check on its status, you could then feign outrage at the squatters who've taken it over. INSIDER TIP: On a Monday you can waltz right on up and grab the most highly coveted picnic table in the joint. The downside is that it's Monday, not Travers Day. Hey, life is full of compromises.

Travers Day is also the annual renewal of the Picnic Table Derby. The gates open at 7:00 AM and it's a virtual renactment of the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona (without the bulls) to get that prized table before anyone else. I've never personally participated in this ritual but have seen video and heard eyewitness accounts. I've never participated before because my top footspeed is on par with a guinea pig.

Let's talk about the Saratoga racegoers, the people who walk through the turnstiles. A recent survey by McKinsey and Company for The Jockey Club revealed that there are disproportionately more people at Saratoga named "Vinny" or "Sal" than at Del Mar and Keeneland combined. And this is a very good thing. Make no mistake, Saratoga is very much an East Coast racetrack disguised as a small-town county fair. The metro areas of Boston, New York City, and northern New Jersey are primary pipelines for visitors. These areas produce people who generally know a thing or two about horse racing, and they make Saratoga special.

Let's talk about the giveaway days, those select Sundays during the meet when a paid admission entitles you to a free totebag, t-shirt, cooler or other item. People go nuts for this stuff. Although the giveaway items are, generally IMG_1474speaking, decent quality items, the accompanying mania is difficult to explain.

"Spinners" are people who swarm Saratoga on giveaway days for the sole purpose of procuring the item, usually multiple units of the item. Most believe the spinners are simply locals out to make a few bucks on eBay, but this has never been scientifically proven.

Spinners look just like you and me. You might be chatting with a spinner and not even know it. They are not dangerous. It has been theorized that spinners can hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies than the average person.

If a widespread financial collapse were to be realized, I truly believe that Saratoga giveaway items could become currency, at least in the Capital Region of New York. There's something about these giveaway items that makes otherwise rational people cling to their bobblehead like it was made of gold. I've seen it. I've lived it. But I don't truly understand it. Whatever is going on, it makes Saratoga special.

Let's talk about ghosts. Every racetrack has ghosts, Saratoga just seems to have more. Or maybe the ghosts there are just more active. The best time to see them is during that dreamlike period right before dawn, when the sun is just beginning to soften up the darkness. The ghost of Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder is a common sighting.

Anything else make Saratoga special? I'm glad you asked. Tom Durkin does. No explanation needed.

Lest we forget, let's talk about the racing. Sure, the overall quality of racing at Saratoga has been diluted over the years. Stretching the meet out to 40 days will do that. But the racing is still plenty good. Any two-year-old maiden race might contain the next big horse. Shippers coming in from all corners forming large, competitive fields over changing track conditions. What fun trying to make sense of it all.

But in the end, every other race could be a state-bred turf sprint and the turnstiles would still spin away. It's Saratoga. And horse racing is just part of the allure.