I visited Saratoga last year as a groom – you can read about that here – The Saratoga Schlep – but this year, we got to go as fans. At some tracks, this feels like a compromise. Not so at Saratoga, and I finally give in to all the Saratoga fans (“It’s got character! It’s got heart! It’s so unique!”)
It has all of those things. I want to spend my entire summer there. I want a vacation home in Saratoga Springs.
What’s lovely about this is that I didn’t even get into the town. Again. I’m incapable of getting into Saratoga Springs, proper. I have been all over the racetrack grounds, from Oklahoma to the harness track, but I’ve never seen the fabled Victorian houses or the posh shops or the restaurants of the rich and famous. And I’m okay with that… for now.
Can you deny the class of a town which is devoted utterly to its racehorses? Which has stabling named Horse Haven and twelve-year-old newsboys haggling with you over the number of quarters for a Pink Sheet, or a sports section of the local paper given over with cheerful abandon to four-legged athletes? For a racing fan, there is no heaven quite like Saratoga.
And there’s a Shake Shack without a wait! I mean, really, a Shack Burger, mid-summer, within five minutes? And it’s next to the paddock? And betting windows?
Take me home, lord.
Then there’s the family atmosphere. Saratoga is what racing should be – there’s a trade fair full of horsey things to buy, plenty of room for families to stretch out and put down their coolers, and horses right in your face, all the time. It’s like a big version of Tampa Bay Downs, which itself is like going to a country fair. Belmont and Aqueduct are basically large, dirty warehouses for serial horseplayers to spend their days in, cursing and smoking cigars and throwing down their losing vouchers on the floor. They’re filthy and nasty, and even on the best of days I leave with a throbbing headache and a healthy distaste for the human race. Going to Saratoga is on par with a big horse show.
Of course, there were huge stakes races on Saturday – what weekend at Saratoga isn’t a momentous occasion, with the top horses of their divisions competing? – and the crowd was impressive. 35,000 people or so – these are numbers that make theme parks happy, and this was all compressed into relatively small grounds. I didn’t get to make my usual pilgrimage back and forth between the paddock and the rail, which made betting tougher. I won my first three races and lost all the rest. What can you do. I had to stake out my rail position for the Test and the Whitney – made easier when it rained a little after the Test and people foolishly went inside to wait it out. Haha! I have your spot!
This meant I was as close as I expect to get to my heroes, who are all equine, of course, including my lovely Tapitsfly. I only wish the turf ran around the outside of the dirt, as it does in Europe, so that I could have seen her run up close and personal! But I was right at the starting gate for the Whitney, and there they were… all those horse celebrities… right before my eyes!