By Frankie Geremski
Just imagine being able to go in the huddle with Tom Brady during the fourth quarter of a big game or having a beer with Derek Jeter after he just blasted a shot out of Yankee Stadium. The everyday fan has that type of access at Saratoga Race Course, and the athletes competing here are world-class. Make no mistake, the epicenter of summer thoroughbred racing resides right here in Saratoga Springs.
Though we could get into all the historical facts of how this magnificent venue has kept its significance in American folklore since 1863, our goal here is to help you feel like an “insider” while informing you how to maximize your day at the track.
Raised in Syracuse, my first trip to Saratoga Race Course came on the last day of a family vacation meandering around New England when I was 7. My only memories of that day at the track were that I digested my first clam and that my father scored on a BIG trifecta on the Travers Stakes. That trifecta funded and extended our trip for three days in Lake George and I have loved Saratoga (and clams for that matter) since.
As an adult, most of my time off during the mid-summer was spent driving east on the Thruway to wager at Saratoga. We often traveled with groups of Syracusans, stopping in Rome and Utica to pick up some other fans who shared the love. We called ourselves the “Saratoga Knights” while we occupied the track. One of the Knights was learning to become a horse trainer and taught me how to physically handicap just by viewing the horse’s actions in the paddock while they were parading pre-race. His knowledge added to my relentless studies and betting savvy, leading to some big pay-offs one summer.
We were having so much fun that the only bad portion of our Saratoga weekends and day-trips was the leaving part. By the start of the next track season, we had both transferred our jobs to Saratoga County and moved here. He now is a prominent trainer at the neighboring Saratoga Harness Track.
Magnet for major horse ties
Leading jockeys, trainers, owners and those with major horse connections from all over America fall in love with Saratoga for similar reasons. Many of them spend most of the summer here on a working vacation. Some have decided to live here, and that’s the ultimate compliment to our community. This is an integral reason as to why we have such quality racing at Saratoga.
What also intensifies the competition of our mid to late summer racing meet is that many trainers from California, Florida, and the Midwest ship their best stock here. They are vying for unprecedented concentrations of Graded Stakes that are stretched out throughout our 40 racing days. Graded Stakes are valued both for their higher purses (earnings) for their owners, the horses also then become more coveted for breeding. Quality showings often result in nominations to The Breeders’ Cup, which this year will be held at Churchill Downs on November 2-3.
Often these invaders leave beaten by the likes of hometown favorite Chad Brown, NY dynamo Linda Rice and powerhouse Todd Pletcher. Two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert has reversed that trend with dominance by winning the last two Travers Stakes with Arrogate in 2016 and West Coast last year. As we went to print on this issue, news broke that 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify, officially retired; putting to rest rumors and speculation and dashing the hopes of fans who were hoping to see another superstar in this years’ Travers Stakes.
It is obvious the impact this sport has on our local culture. This effect has certainly increased in the last several years. Since 2013 NYRA has invested $30 million at the historic venue in efforts to enhance guest experience and provide amenities consistent with those available at first-class stadiums and arenas. This year’s showcase enhancement is The Stretch, which is a modern yet casual all-new private hospitality area with a breathtaking view of the thoroughbreds rounding the final turn entering the dramatic stretch run.
We may well be in the best of times with the momentum that horse racing has generated in sports legends with Justify and American Pharoah. These are the Tom Bradys and Michael Jordans of the sport and they are all on showcase in our backyard for the cost of a $5 admission, easily the best bargain in sports. The Saratoga Race Course’s status should easily share the same as the Yankees or Patriots. I have heard many pundits say that horse racing needed a Triple Crown winner to really take off. Maybe that time is now, as we have had two!
Jockeying to see jockeys
The jockeys are always a big hit with all fans, especially the kids. They return after each race from the winner’s circle through the clubhouse and grandstand to the Jockey Room following a painted Jockey Lane. They are very cordial to everyone, but please allow them their space. It’s easy to cheer for these guys after you have seen them act with such class just minutes after dismounting.
Insiders pay attention to what horses Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr. and John Velasquez ride, especially in the maiden races with numerous first- time starters. The Jockey Room corridor has many displays and is very fan-oriented. It is very exciting for newcomers to see these superstars stroll out of the Jockey Room with fresh, bright silks.
The most recent member of the Knights is much more of a race fan than a gambler, and he comes to the track to accumulate pictures and get autographs. In the paddock area and Jockey Lane he’s like a kid in a candy shop, yet will surprise you with a juicy nugget of betting info he picked up in his travels.
Make your own picnic
Saratoga has the most glorious paddock picnic area in all of racing and there is plenty of room for thousands to enjoy. You can tote portable lawn chairs and coolers (no bottles allowed) and make your own picnic, creating a day of affordable family fun. Viewing these magnificent animals often turns first-timers into lifelong fans.
This unique access gives you an advantage over other horseplayers. Since only a fraction of the wagering occurs at the racetrack, most of the betting is pouring in on smartphones and computers from all over the country. They can’t see the horses parade; they can’t physically handicap like you can. This is huge. NYRA’s “Saratoga Live” broadcast is centered on a scenic stage in the paddock and their team of experts, Andy Serling, Paul LoDuca, Gabbie Gaudet and trainer Tom Amoss, provide enough knowledge to follow each race like an expert. The broadcast is augmented by Maggie Wolfendale, who is an expert physical handicapper who roams the paddock and grounds revealing her professional perceptions. Your physical handicapping coupled with the broadcast’s insight and your hunches will certainly produce some winners.
Best spot for paddock players
I think the Post Bar is the best spot for paddock players. I always grab a table there well before the first race. It’s going to be a long day and enjoying a Shake Shack burger early is vital. The Post Bar opened the same year that the Knights came into fruition and it has always been our “Clubhouse.” The bartender PJ is somewhat of the unofficial mayor of the courtyard, and the service truly is top notch. This courtyard is also my favorite spot in the track to people watch. As the day lingers, it seems the who’s who of horse racing and every colorful character at the track gets here somehow. As late afternoon transitions, new arrivals dressed in their finest fashions, both male and female, turn this courtyard into an impromptu fashion show. The atmosphere shifts to more of a social scene and this becomes the busiest spot on the track. Live music is offered on Friday and Saturday, and the Post Bar becomes the first spoke of the post-track Nelson Avenue gate night life.
Both Siro’s and The Horseshoe are walking distance from the Post Bar/paddock and offer live music. Siro’s is casual dress outside where the bands perform and has food service. Inside Siro’s is dressier, offering gourmet dining with a swanky décor that truly fits the environment and extends your day in the Clubhouse. The Horseshoe is casual, younger and the music and crowd stay somewhat later. It, too, has a great atmosphere and reminds me of speakeasys around Churchill Downs. The Knights certainly have had some good times at both and they provide the racing fan the chance to rub elbows with the racing professionals.
Don’t let the weather ruin your day
Another reason we chose the Post Bar is the huge canopy. An original Knight always wears a hat to the track and mildly coerced me to do the same. For once, I blindly listened. It’s been 10 years and I haven’t been hatless to the track since. When it’s raining, I’m not wet. When it’s hot, I’m not burning. Either way it’s a great Saratoga tradition and a nice look. And ladies, where else can you go these days that you can show off an old classic or pick out something brand new to match your track outfit? I have had many of my best days at the track when it was raining simply betting the MTO (main track only) horses. To explain, if it rains too much, for the safety of the athletes they move the grass races to the dirt and certain horses are now eligible. These horses are “mudders” and I eliminate the other entrants in my selections.
There is plenty to do for everyone here. If your mindset is flip flops and shorts, that’s cool. I recommend coming early if you want to grab one of the 950 first-come picnic tables. The gates open at 8am. The Oklahoma training track is open daily to the public from 8am-10am at the Union Avenue gate across the street and 200 yards down East Avenue. Also, at 191 Union Avenue is the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, open from 9am-5pm daily; museum events for kids are held on Thursdays. Travers Day The Travers Stakes field hasn’t won’t be announced until closer to the race, but make sure to check out our Facebook page on the eve of the Travers to get the Knights’ picks. Currently, I’m leaning heavily on Good Magic. Not only am I rooting for local hero Chad Brown to win his first Travers, but I also respect the effort Good Magic made as runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. Good Magic peaked late last year and should do the same on Travers Day.. See you at the track!