Saratoga Schlep: The Backstretch and Its Delights

Before I moved to New York, I’d only experienced a few racetracks: the venerable arched windows of the grande dame, Belmont Park, the nouveau riche Italianate fantasy of the new Gulfstream, the country fair ambiance of Tampa Bay Downs, and the odd contrasts of Calder, which combines mid-twentieth-century glass and concrete hideousness with a tropical garden-styled paddock that is one of the most beautiful in the country.

Eager to explore every facet of the backstretch life, I’ve been hitching along to every race I can, and so I felt lucky that my first racing experience was at Belmont. Going backside at this racetrack, a “garden city” version of the usual high-rise, high-density approach to storing racehorses, was a realization of a dream. Where does Alec Ramsay (my idol as a ten year old, my idol today) take the Black for his midnight work-outs? Belmont Park. Where did we slip away to on spring afternoons when we lived horseless in Manhattan? Belmont Park. 

Belmont goes on forever, with primly painted barns and the windowboxes full of stable-colored impatiens and geraniums, beneath the massive northern trees I don’t yet know by name.

Saratoga sign

The prettiness of Saratoga - and the Disney-like perfection - where all the barns have names and all the signs are in the same Victorian motif.

But Saratoga, as everyone else told me repeatedly, takes the cake.

Saratoga is the size of a small country town, and I think serious money could be made with some sort of golf cart taxi-cab service, because walking from one end of this massive property to the other doesn’t even bear thinking about.

In fact, I didn’t. In order to traverse what must have been two miles from the receiving barn to the Oklahoma track (which is across two roads, through a minor forest, a training track, past the main track and stabling) we actually hitched a ride on a golf cart with two grooms, and hitched a ride back with yet another groom. One thing Saratoga has, with its approximately eight million horses, is lots and lots of grooms.

The other thing that sets Saratoga apart, aside from its massive size, its ridiculous prettiness, and its devotion to tradition, is a backstretch that was truly designed for horse people. I’m sure the grandstand is nice, but I didn’t really experience the red-and-white awnings the way most people do. I watched the races from the backstretch, where just beyond the rail of the racetrack, there is a grill and bar where the burgers aren’t ten dollars and the beers aren’t seven, there are picnic tables and televisions, and there’s even a betting window.

For me, this is a massive selling point. In my opinion, the most obnoxious thing about going to the races, as most things, is the people. People standing in my way, people hurling insults, people saying inane things like, “Oh look, they’re running on the green grass part – I never noticed that before,” or “That’s amazing, look, last year there wasn’t an ambulance following the horses. I wonder what they think will happen.” Really? Really? It’s not that I begrudge casual fans, new fans, idle fans, the opportunity to come to the races. But I think there should be somewhere I can enjoy myself without having to listen to them. Like General Admission at concerts, there ought to be somewhere for the die-hards to freak out in peace. And Saratoga offers that, with a decent concession stand, to boot.

Crossing the street, Saratoga

A horse headed back to the receiving barn. Horses have VIP status in Saratoga, and there's something to be said for that attitude.

The road crossings, and there are plenty of them, are especially charming. Possibly NYRA wouldn’t be in such debt if they didn’t have all these security officers on the payroll, guarding the dozens of barns and stopping traffic to let horses and their people cross the streets between the properties, but I love the security officers, and I love the street-crossings, so we’ll just have to figure out another way to close the budget gaps.

Dorm at the receiving barn, Saratoga

The view from the barn. We slept just inside that porch, in a bare six by twelve room. Dorms here are BYOB - Bring Your Own Bed.

Was Saratoga one long raucous party? Not the night that I was there. But then, I slept here: fifty feet from my horse’s stall, in this amazing little farmhouse (?) with a Victorian Gothic window and a fat hedgehog living under the building next door. The picnic table, by the way, is a spot for late-night confessions. I assume; the conversations, muffled and frankly annoying since I was dead tired, were in Spanish.

I don’t see how the party life-style that I’ve been hearing about goes with getting up at four-thirty a.m. to take care of racehorses. Because at five o’clock, on the porch of the dorm, we sat and watched the lights come on in Linda Rice’s training barn, and the Saratoga backstretch morning began.

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