When I tell people I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby, even those with the most casual interest in horse racing light up and divulge their desire to see the spectacle that is the first Saturday in May in Louisville, Kentucky. The very next thing that comes out of their mouth is always along the lines of, “Don’t you have to be grandfathered into tickets?” While Churchill Downs has answered that question by selling a limited number of grandstand seats to the general public, a ticket to the Kentucky Derby will still cost a cool $125—if you can get one before they sell out.
I’ve been to three Derbies, so I’d like to think I know a little bit about that blitz of pageantry, gamble-happy drunkenness, spectacle, and plateau of racing dreams; but until this past July and August, the only thing I knew about Saratoga Race Course was its storied history and the mystique surrounding the track. After taking in the atmosphere, the people, sights, and sounds, I can honestly attest that Saratoga Race Course’s yearly meet is the closest thing in America to witnessing Louisville on the first Saturday in May. But while the Derby only happens once a year, every day at Saratoga feels like it’s time to roll out the roses. And you can have this Derby-esque experience for as little as $3.
In every sense of the word, Saratoga is a racing fan’s paradise. And if the crowd camped around the paddock in lawn chairs and picnic tables is any indication, you don’t have to be much of a racing fan to feel that same sense of euphoria. Walking through the main gates, the red and white striped awnings and tents lend to the feeling of being at a county fair. The smell of popcorn, fried chicken, sizzling hamburgers, and other savory food best served outdoors immediately sets the mouth watering, and cold beer and other spirits are just a walk down the sidewalk. Three different bands can be playing at the same time, from ragtime to rock ‘n roll, but it never feels like a hectic frat party. On the contrary, Saratoga is a dignified, family-friendly outing tailored to cater to every mood, from high-class in heels and feathers to flopped-out in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Of course, there’s always the exception to the rule, like the Hulk Hogan impersonator who stalks the grounds every day and will pose for your camera.
Founded in 1864, Saratoga has lost none of its charm like so many tracks. Original architecture from the same era that cheered on Man o’ War to his one and only loss still stands as it had back in the Roaring 20s, and the springs as ancient as the land itself can be dipped into between races. Take heed before a gulp of the ever-flowing waters of Big Red Spring—its flavor is nothing short of salty ocean water, though hardcore residents and old-timers regularly line up to drink its reportedly natural healing minerals.
It’s ironic that of all the tracks that call themselves “parks,” Saratoga calls itself merely a “Race Course,” yet it boasts more of a park setting than just about any other track in the U.S. Certainly, no other track uses their park-like grounds as well or better than Saratoga. Big-screen TVs fastened high to betting booths or poles can be seen from just about every point in the park, so that patrons who never walk into the grandstands can still see all of the action from their spots near the paddock and wager in any of the nearby windows (you can’t walk through the park without running into a betting window). One of the sidewalks also serves as a constant art fair of racing-related work, from jewelry and paintings of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to photography by the official track photographers, Bob and Adam Coglianese.
But, for the real racing aficionado, the thing which makes Saratoga so special is the amount of fanfare that celebrates the races themselves. More people attend a race day in the middle of the week at this track than most tracks bring on their big stakes weekends. When the horses come turning for home, no matter if it’s a Grade I stakes race or a $10,000 claiming race, the grandstand begins to transform into a live animal, erupting a roar like some prehistoric beast, the old wooden stands thrumming with the tradition of urging on your charge with the same gusto as betting the farm versus a $2 wager on an even-money favorite. One can’t help but be swept up in the spirit of the place.
The best of the best compete at Saratoga; all the top trainers are here, as well as the nation’s leading jockeys. And if you are lucky enough to walk the backstretch area, you’ll notice a who’s who of horses poking their heads out of their stalls, as well as throngs of 2-year-olds vying to be the next big thing. Saratoga is where the champions call home; Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, Quality Road, Blame, Rail Trip, Life at Ten, Musket Man, Gio Ponti, Discreetly Mine, Devil May Care, and Kentucky Derby winners Mine That Bird and Super Saver are all stabled here. Those who arrive early on race days to park in the free general admission lot between the Oklahoma training track and the second backstretch area will be rewarded with catching the last of the morning workouts before the races begin.
All of these elements are just the tip of the iceberg of the Saratoga experience. Be sure to check out next week’s edition of The Call to the Post for part two of “Destination: Saratoga!”
For more information on Saratoga Race Course, check out their website here at NYRA.com.