The hand-rung bell signaled that the next horse race at the Saratoga Race Course was 17 minutes away. This is just one of the many traditions at the historic venue, established in 1863 and the oldest of its kind in the United States. For the non-hardcore handicappers on the grounds that day–and there were many of them–the sound was their cue to put down their drink, pause their conversation, and pick up their program to quickly choose a horse to bet on.
For 40 days each summer, the thoroughbred horse racing syndicate converges on scenic Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Horse racing’s popularity is freefalling, but Saratoga Race Course seems to be OK considering the drastic drop in patronage and handles at other tracks. More than 20,000 people attended on the Thursday I visited earlier this month–a lot considering that Saratoga Springs, a town of 27,000 permanent residents, is surrounded by a whole lot more trees, hills, and lakes than people.
Unlike most tracks, Saratoga does not rely exclusively on gambling to spin the turnstiles. The track has grown in spurts in its 150 years but has managed to cling to its Gilded Age appearance and feeling–all while accommodating modern conveniences. This commitment to historic preservation attracts people from all social realms, from the bigwigs in the clubhouse dressed in bespoke suits to the family in the picnic area dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Yes, some of the racegoers were there solely to try it hit it big. But the majority were there to enjoy the ambiance with their friends and family.
The tone for my day at track was set once I got out of the car. Usually, the journey from the parking lot to a venue the size of the Saratoga Race Course (capacity 70,000) is a hurried walk through a concrete maze of vehicles. Instead, on my way to the entrance, I walked down a grassy corridor beneath shady maples. To the north was the practice track, which was originally the main track for a year back in 1863 when Saratoga opened. Today it’s tongue-and-cheekily called Oklahoma because of its perceived distance to the main track, about a quarter mile away. To the south were historic stables, filled by horses and tenders. Parking areas were marked not by numbers or letters but by the names of the many legendary thoroughbreds that have galloped on Saratoga’s hallowed dirt.
The harmonious design extended to the main track. The nonhistoric Union Avenue entrance was stately yet reserved and blended well with the other structures. The grandstand nearly doubled in size after a 1960s addition but it matches the original in scale and appearance, though it utilizes different materials. Flowers and decorative ironwork serve as decorative elements and are scattered throughout the grounds. The trademark peppermint-striped awnings added flair and provided additional covered seating areas. Everything is meticulously maintained.
The lag between races passed quickly with so much to explore on the 350-acre property. I observed the jockey-mounted horses trotting through the crowd on their way to the track, gulped my first Shake Shack milkshake, listened to a bluegrass band playing in the gazebo, and drank the putrid water spouting from the Big Red Spring. Not even rain showers kept me in my seat for long. This left little time to handicap, as evidenced by my lightened wallet by the time I left. All well. It was a wonderful day nonetheless.