SARATOGA SPRINGS – For over 320 days during the calendar year, Saratoga Springs is a quaint town, nestled at the foot of the Adirondacks. Every summer, for six and a half weeks, the town transforms from quaint to downright magical.
Whether you are a horse racing fan, a casual spectator or simply enjoy sipping champagne in an elaborate hat, the Saratoga Race Course affirms its claim as the summer place to be.
If you haven’t experienced the racing at Saratoga Race Course, you’re missing the boat. And I’m not talking about the canoe that sits on the lake in the infield painted with the colors of the previous year’s Travers winner.
The oldest sporting venue in North America opens up its 148th racing season Friday afternoon; it runs through Labor Day. It’s the track that dealt last year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah his lone loss in a Horse of the Year campaign for the ages.
So why is Saratoga so magical? Let’s start with something as simple as “the backyard.”
With picnic tables and televisions galore, an afternoon at the Spa can be spent with bring-it-yourself coolers filled with your favorite food and beverages. The numerous picnic tables sit beneath beautiful trees in a family setting where $2 bettors and longtime handicappers sit together to cheer the horses they’ve backed at the window.
Don’t be surprised to see barbershop quartets, dancing groups or a solo guitar player crooning amongst the backyard crowd on any given race day. Restaurant row and the food vendors that are located inside and near the carousel pavilion provide those who came empty-handed with plenty of local fare.
A mid-card plate of steamed clams from the Buffalo-based Lobster Hut is an annual Post Time tradition that will be honored several times this meeting. While we’re at it, enjoying a Hattie’s chicken sandwich between races isn’t a bad way to spend that winning daily double wager.
The people-watching, especially when the horses are turning for home, is as good as a Wednesday afternoon in midtown Manhattan. Bettors with rolled up programs slapping their sides and urging their selections to get to the wire first can be as entertaining as the race itself.
The camaraderie of the backyard denizens is second to none. Gamblers pooling their funds for joint show betting can make the experience more communal and the winning tickets all the more special.
Nestled right off the paddock is The Post at Saratoga bar, except no one calls it that. It’s known as “The Paddock Bar” to those who frequent it and it can be the best place to view the horses before they take to the track.
The path from the paddock saddling area to the track passes right by the Paddock Bar and is a perfect place to snap a shot of your favorite horse. If you are a paddock player you can get a great look at the conformation and mannerisms before they hit the track.
The bar also is situated close to outdoor betting windows and the Shake Shack, where I’d be remiss to mention the concoction known as The Muddy Track that will add a few pounds to your Saratoga weekend.
Similar to the backyard, the roar that can be heard from around the bar during the last furlong can be deafening. Characters with nicknames like “G-Money,” “Toy Cannon” and “Joey da K” can be seen counting their winnings or heard touting their next wager at the Old Spa.
The actual racing is sure to be spectacular with some of racing’s current stars slated to run.
The 2016 Saratoga season will be no different, with a number of stars planning to run around the historic oval over 40 racing dates. Opening weekend will play host to the return of last year’s 2-year-old champion, Songbird, who will run in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks on Sunday afternoon.
Songbird won’t be the only celebrated filly to race at the Spa this summer. Tepin, a 5-year-old mare, is slated to prepare for the Sept. 15 Woodbine Mile with a race at Saratoga. After winning at Churchill Downs on Derby day, the Mark Casse-trained daughter of Bernstein headed across the pond to Royal Ascot for her next start.
Defending a six-race win streak, on soft ground, running without Lasix on a turf straight, Tepin beat the boys and registered a historic victory. Racing’s current queen is the first American-based horse to win the historic race, always run as the first race of the Ascot meet. She’ll look to extend her seven-race win streak at Saratoga, likely in the Fourstardave Handicap midway through the meet.
Saratoga won’t just be about the female stars. Many of the colts who populated the Triple Crown trail are stalled at the Spa. Preakness winner Exaggerator drilled a bullet workout last weekend in preparation for next weekend’s Jim Dandy. Belmont Stakes winner Creator and Derby runner-up Gun Runner are both stabled in Steve Asmussen’s barn on the premises and could see starts at the Spa as well.
The handicap division will be in the spotlight twice, in the Aug. 6 Whitney Invitational and the Sept. 3 Woodward Stakes. Both races will highlight older horses seeking a route to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in the fall. And don’t forget the meet’s signature race, the Travers Stakes, scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 27.
Sure there are the smattering of fancy hats and fedoras at the Spa, but it’s really about the racetrack characters and the diverse people you can meet that make it magical.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.