Saratoga – Experience The Magic

Horse racing has a plethora of traditions that have been engrained in us which in many ways are taken for granted. Some traditions are so steeped in race culture that any change would seem a blasphemous crime to all who embrace this wonderful sport.  As much as the excitement of racing draws us to keep returning, traditions are some of the most enjoyable aspects of attending the races.

Each track has its subtle differences that make them unique whether it is scenery, track and clubhouse configuration or ambient character. The “CHARACTER” aspect of a track’s uniqueness is perhaps the most memorable redeeming trait any track can offer. From the sight of the San Gabriel Mountains at Santa Anita, to the Royal patronage of Ascot, to the party like traditions of Flemington, each track has subtle and not so subtle variations that enhance a day at the races.

While I can honestly say I have not been to all the race tracks the world has to offer, I have been too many tracks/courses in my lifetime. Each one was a joy for not only the racing, but also to take in the way local race goers approach the enjoyment. I had never been to Saratoga, although I live only six hours away, until this past week. A bucket list item that I finally got around to filling. I went with high anticipation and expectations. My week at Saratoga exceeded all I had heard and looked forward too.

It is not often when an experience you look forward to exceeds your expectations. Saratoga did so in ways I could not have imagined. Would I go back? In a New York minute I would.

Firstly, I am a huge advocate for the history of racing. Saratoga is the oldest track in America. The history is dripping off the old oaks that surround the track, winds through the concourses of the grandstand, and permeates the air of the backstretch barns. The National Racing Museum Hall of Fame is right across the street. A wonderful display of racing’s history in North America with exhibit after exhibit taking you through the groundbreaking events that shaped racing and depicting the horses and people who were responsible for such events.

The Hall of Fame is a first class way to embrace the legends that shaped the sport. You are greeted with rows of jockey statues painted in the colours of some of the most important stables and racing outfits in America. Exquisite artwork, interactive displays, and rare memorabilia enhance the experience one has while strolling through the museum. You stroll through the history on display at your own pace, soaking in the information and ambience of history as you deem fit. I couldn’t leave without shopping in the store and found to my delight a book, long since taken out of print, I have been searching for many years. Yes I bought the copy.

While the aforementioned ambience at the Museum was a delight, across the street at the track you get to live in the ambience of history Saratoga has in abundance. Prior to our visit to the Museum, we took in the track side breakfast at Saratoga, a long standing tradition Saratoga has to offer. Enjoying our first meal of the day while watching morning workouts right beside our table is something any race fan can appreciate. With full bellies we then went on the backstretch tour to have a look around the barns and see the track from a different angle. Time stands still in the backstretch. The old barns, the mature trees and the general feel of the area take you back to a simpler time.

The backstretch, as with most tracks, is a busy place during workouts. However the setting at Saratoga offers a serene feel to the important activities taking place. Gate schooling and on track works do not seem as tense here as at other tracks. Perhaps it is the ghosts of past champions that have called Saratoga home that instil such feel to this grand track. I like to think it is the track itself quietly instilling this sense of calm that only the wisdom of experience can inspire.

Following our breakfast, backstretch visit, and museum experience, it was time to get ready for a day of racing Saratoga style. We purchased our seats in the grandstand, bought a program and racing form for the day’s handicapping, and settled in. Just sitting in the seats with the panoramic view of the stately infield and surrounding scenery was enough to please the senses. We walked through the grandstand building to check out the restaurants and bars catering to patrons. Then we went out to the paddock ring behind the grandstand where the stars of the show make their final preps for the race. Here we found what Saratoga is all about.

Among the stately trees encompassing the paddock there are picnic areas replete with tables, mutual windows and lawn areas for patrons to set up chairs and picnic supplies. Families spend the day here. They can see the horses being led along the fenced pathway for the next race. Playgrounds for young children are setup by track management for the little one’s enjoyment. Large state of the art monitors are strategically set up for fans to keep abreast of the changing odds and to watch the races and replays. There are toilet facilities, food service outlets, souvenir and memorabilia kiosks, as well as the administration offices and the jockeys lounge under the canopy of the great trees that shade the area from the heat of the day.

The entire setting is entrancing. People can talk about the upcoming race and handicap for their next win, sit in comfort and snack on whatever they enjoy, and know that their kids are not pestering to go home because the children are as entertained as they. For a general admission price, entire families can enjoy a day at the races. This has been going on for generation after generation. It is as natural to the locals as walking and sleeping.

Saratoga track management encourages fans by to partake in coming out to the track for a picnic. The activity goes back to the dawn of the track, continuing the tradition which came to life in 1864. The scene is both quaint and spectacular. This grand old tradition has stood the test of time. Saratoga has existed and prospered by encouraging men and women to bring their kids, bring their friends and relax in whatever manner that suits you. That is how success and longevity is achieved.

What this activity promotes, race tracks that house slot machines and gambling casinos cannot. Race track casinos are the prime reason families do not attend racing in numbers. The presence of race track casinos permeates the inference that these venues are strictly for gambling. Thus new generations of fans are not introduced to the excitement of racing. Tracks that employ such activities might be earning more revenue today, but they are mortgaging the future of racing by essentially shutting out the next generation of fans that could gravitate to the sport.

After witnessing the pleasure of picnicking at the track, something my wife and I have not had the opportunity to do before, we decided to go to a local grocery store and buy the fixings for a nice picnic and do it the Saratoga local’s way. The next day we got to experience Saratoga as it should. About two minutes before the start of each race, we would get up from our little area on the picnic grounds and walk to the concourse in front of the grandstand and watch the race from the rail, leaving our lawn chairs and food cooler where they are. This is always our preferred spot to watch races. Following the race, unless a ticket was to be cashed, we went right back to our picnic spot as if it were home. Our neighbours would do likewise. No worries of someone taking our chairs or coolers.

Friendly and enthusiastic fellow racing fans, kids playing and pretending to be horses or jockeys in the playground and an old fashioned sense of calm and camaraderie are the hall marks of going to Saratoga and blending in with the locals. I highly recommend the experience.

In closing, Saratoga has so much to offer. From the casual to the die hard racing fan, the famous grand old track has it all. Top class horses and stables descend on Saratoga for the summer meet, the only meet of the year, and provide historic races and memories. The big event is as always the Travers Stakes. Many of the finest steeds in history such as Whirlaway, Arrogate, Sea Hero (whose statue graces the paddock), Holy Bull, Buckpasser, Native Dancer, and the legend himself Man O’ War have won this race known as the summer classic. A win in the Travers is a win to immortality.

Saratoga embodies all that is great about racing. The annual yearling sales, which we went to in support for a close friend who had a couple of well bred yearlings for sale, brings out the high rollers in the sport searching for their next champion to race. From the ambience of the track, the history emanating from all corners of the beautiful town of Saratoga Springs, and the sheer enjoyment of attending the races in whatever manor you chose, I defy anyone to not have a good time.

Saratoga is a special place. Long live the grand old track.

(All photos courtesy of the author)

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