A Saratoga Experience
By Sean Alvarez
The Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge has become a landmark for race fans heading to Saratoga Springs to attend the races as it signifies that you are minutes away from Saratoga Racecourse. After touching down at the Albany International Airport, Peter and I, headed towards the iconic Saratoga Race Course. As we headed north on the 87, I began to see the shape of twin arches in a dark rust color. Driving closer to the bridge, I did not get the feeling that I thought I would as it seemed like any other bridge. Once we crossed the bridge however, I immediately could feel the excitement and anticipation of getting to Saratoga Race Course for the first time come over my body.
As we pull into the gate on the backside, I got my first glance at Saratoga Racetrack. I step out of the car to get a better look and as I am trying to take in all of the Spa in a glance, the clouds let out a loud “snap”, almost as if to say “Welcome to Saratoga, we mean business here”. We continue along through the backside of Saratoga and as horses peek their heads out of their stalls to get a glance at their new visitors we circle back to the gate leading into Saratoga. We drove on through Saratoga towards my hotel going through small neighborhoods surrounding Saratoga Racetrack. Each house that we passed I saw people out on their porches having gatherings after the races, lawn jockeys in every silk imaginable, and barbecues with friends and family. For someone who first and foremost loves the sport of horse racing, I felt at home and welcomed before I could even attend a race in Saratoga.
Each morning before heading to the track, I would walk up and down Broadway in downtown Saratoga. Downtown Saratoga will immediately make you feel like you have taken a step back in time. There are art sculptures filled along the street, shops selling all different kinds of horse racing clothes and memorabilia, and fantastic breakfast spots that would make any horseplayer feel right at home. Throughout my trip, I attempted to eat at different spots for breakfast from Mrs. London’s to Uncommon Grounds to an easy meal at the hotel. While each meal and decor was different, the experience was not. Each day, while at different locations, I experienced smiling faces, horseplayers reading the form, owners explaining to friends why they had a shot to win that day, and families making their annual Saratoga trip.
With the recent passing of an icon in our sport, I knew for the first time entering into Saratoga, I wanted to walk through the Marylou Whitney Entrance. For me, there is something special about planning how I will enter a venue for the first time and as I walked through the turnstile at Saratoga Race Course, I knew I was ready to take in what the “Spa” had to offer. I had always seen pictures of fans sitting in a picnic area reading the form and watching the races/replays on the numerous televisions scattered across the area. What the pictures could not tell you is not only the size of the area, but the entire place is packed with horse racing fans handicapping the races, sharing stories, meeting new people, and having a great time. Every direction that I looked, there were smiling faces ready to enjoy a Thursday at the Saratoga Racecourse.
Not long into the Thursday card at Saratoga I experienced my first scattered storm, quickly moving through the racetrack. We had expected this storm and as the rain began to fall, the 1st floor of the grandstand was filled with fans seeking shelter from the coming storm. The clouds began to open up and the rain started to come at us sideways a lot harder than a Southern California boy is used to seeing. Normally a storm like this would put a damper on even the most positive race fan on their day at the track, but not here. As the clouds parted and the sun began to shine again, so did the faces of everyone around me as they went about their business like the storm never happened.
One of my favorite parts of Saratoga, if not my favorite, is how close in proximity everything is to the track. I had the pleasure on Thursday evening to be invited to a friend’s house for a BBQ which was close enough from the track to walk. Upon entering the house, I took a glance around and quickly realized that I was now surrounded by some of the more accomplished horseplayers in our game. Within the hour of arriving the daughter of the house had us all gathered around the living room table playing a horse racing board game called “Stretch Run”. Within minutes of the first horse leaving the “Starting Line”, the entire house was laughing, coming up with strategies, yelling for inquiries, and finding a track bias. As the night ended and the humidity dropped, a nice, short walk back to the hotel was a perfect conclusion to the night.
During the conclusion of the Friday card at the track, Peter, who played a vital role in my experience in Saratoga, had a strong opinion in the last race. I did not have a good betting day at the track and decided to bet what I had left on my voucher, I was all in. Passing Out, took early money but as they left the gate, she ended up right at her morning line odds of 8-1. She broke well and Jose Ortiz did a nice job of not grabbing and he let her settle right where she wanted to be. She had a touch of traffic trouble around the first turn but did eventually settle on the rail behind a quick 22:99 opening quarter mile. She eventually would get shuffled near the back of the pack and Jose made the decision to stick to the rail around the turn instead of trying to swing around the 9 horses in front of him. When they hit the top of the stretch there was a wall of horses in front of her and Jose and after an attempt to squeeze through the rail failed, it looked like Jose would just wrap her up. Jose was not asking her for effort but she continued to get closer and closer to the leaders but still with nowhere to go. When Devious Charm started to tire late in the lane, a small hole opened up and Jose shook the reins twice at Passing Out and she responded. With less than 100 yards to the finish, Passing Out squeezed through an opening like the rest of her competition was standing still. Jose never shook the reigns after the initial burst of speed and won by a length under wraps. Normally, I do my best to treat a cashed ticket with class, but Peter and I lost it as she crossed the wire. Not only did this make our Friday night much better, but I will always have that memory when I cashed a big ticket with a good friend. Peter and I will never forget Passing Out.
The next couple of days were filled with much more of the same. Between races I would find myself walking through the picnic area enjoying all the fans in their “designated spot” for the day spending the day at the track in whatever style they choose. There are so many ways that different types of fans can enjoy the day, but the most important fans in my opinion are the future of our sport, the younger generation. One of the best things that Saratoga does is it gives the fans access to horses and jockeys throughout the racetrack. After a race has finished, the jockeys walk right through the grandstand, giving fans access to greet and see their favorite jockey. Walking through the racetrack I would see kids up on the fences surrounding the paddock trying to see which horse they like the best and standing up on chairs on the rail to see over it.
Saratoga as a community and as a racetrack does many great things. The best thing that Saratoga does is not only making a fan of horse racing welcome, but feel at home.
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