Racing Season in Saratoga, New York

Down the home stretch at Saratoga. Photo: New York Racing Association
Down the home stretch at Saratoga. Photo: New York Racing Association

A Summer Weekend at the track

By Chip Ainsworth

The fifth race had ended, my bankroll was dwindling and the ham-and-chicken crepe was going down like sawdust, so I took a stroll across Union Avenue to where a kid was selling soda out of a cooler and gave him a buck for a cold can of Coke.

It was “Midsummer St. Patrick’s Day” at the Old Spa in Saratoga, New York, but finding the luck of the Irish at a racetrack is like using a dowsing rod in the desert.

I’d made good time on the 162-mile trip down Rte. 91 to I-90 and back up the New York Thruway, and the turnstiles wouldn’t be spinning for another half-hour. In front of me a school nurse from Greenwich, Connecticut, said the track was giving away a trip for two to Dublin. “Two years ago I won the trip to Dubai,” she exclaimed.

Behind me, a retired engineer from Albany said every winter he returned from playing the horses at Gulfstream Park to trout fish the Kinderhook River in spring.

“Natives?” I asked.

“No, they stock the hell out of it.”

Around us hawkers were touting Pink Lady tip sheets for $2, Salvation Army volunteers were ringing bells for donations, and paperboys were handing out free copies of the New York Post.

When the gates opened people staked out their territory by putting coolers on picnic tables scattered under the elms, and bagpipers serenaded a long line of race-goers who were waiting in line to claim free Saratoga t-shirts, which this year were a white all-cotton brand (made in Honduras) with a green “Saratoga” logo on the front and a jockey atop a race horse inside a green shamrock on the back.

Saratoga Race Track. Photo by Sony Stark.
Saratoga Race Track. Photo by Sony Stark.

Before setting off to claim my t-shirt I’d placed a foldout chair alongside several others that had been left unattended in front of the grandstand. When I returned I realized I was in the middle of a family reunion.

It included Kevin and Maureen Clark, their son and daughter and his sister Ann and her husband Tim, plus friends of the family — and me, the interloper.

They drank beers and smoked cigars — Tim lit up a $60 Macanudo while Kevin puffed away on a five-dollar Wal-Mart special — and Maureen offered me peanuts, Ritz crackers and dip.

They hailed from South Hadley and Kevin was the family patriarch. He was unpretentious and welcoming, and he said the get-together for a long weekend at the Spa was a family tradition.

It was Ann, he said, who’d lucked out by reserving rooms at the Marriott for $160 a night. “I booked them on the Internet a year ago, but even back then it should have been $499,” she said. “It was a glitch on their website, but they gave me the rate anyway.”

Saratogo Racing Grounds
Saratoga Racing Grounds

Stogie and a Bud Light

An investment analyst, Clark was laconically puffing away on his cheap stogie and nursing a Bud Light when he looked over and asked: “I can’t think of a better place to be in the world on a summer weekend than Saratoga. Can you?”

No, I couldn’t, not gridlocked Cape Cod or hectic Hampton Beach or even the French Riviera, because Saratoga Race Course is to horse racing fans what Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is to the NFL.

A few years ago, Sports Illustrated listed it as the tenth-best sports venue in the world, a place that “transports you back to the days when people came to the races in the surrey with the fringe on top.”

The town itself, Saratoga Springs, has fewer than 30,000 year-round residents — “Like Northampton, except more class,” said a woman familiar with both places.

Its performing arts center is the summer home of the New York City Ballet, the balladeer Don McLean reportedly wrote “American Pie” here, and Bill Parcells owns a summer home near the local golf course.

Street scene in downtown Saratoga. photo Sonya Stark.
Street scene in downtown Saratoga. photo Sonya Stark.

In its midsummer splendor the racecourse is a vibrant mix of green and blue and yes, even brown; absent is the desperation that exists at most racetracks.

If people bet and win they’re happy; if they lose they’re still having a good time watching the horses and, between races, looking at beautiful women drinking Saratoga Sunrises for $12.50 a pop.

In the men’s rooms underneath the grandstand, attendants listen to Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge on their boom boxes and collect dollars and dimes and quarters by handing out towels and offering cellophane-wrapped sugar candy in wicker trays.

Twenty to Win

After the soda run my luck changed. With time running out to bet the next race, I glanced up at a TV monitor perched above the pari-mutuel windows and saw a glistening colt dancing on its toes near the starting gate. Good enough for me, I thought.

Racing at the Spa. photo NYRA.
Racing at the Spa.

“Twenty to win and $10 to place and show on the nine,” I said to the clerk and returned to my seat.

“Who’d you bet?” asked Kevin.

“Not saying.”

The horses were loaded into the starting gate and there was a moment of anticipatory silence. “They’re all in,” said track announcer Tom Durkin from somewhere up between the spires. The bells clanged, the gates sprung open and Durkin proclaimed, “And they’re off!”

To borrow an old Reggie Jackson line, Durkin is the straw that stirs Saratoga’s drink. Now 60, his flair for drama was nurtured at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and he got his start by calling races on the fairground circuit. His perfect enunciation and knack for making order out of chaos is a rare gift.

Racing on the track. photo NYRA.
Racing on the track.

Mere text doesn’t do him justice, but this was his call of the hectic finish of last Friday’s sixth race:

“They’re at the top of the stretch now, and it is Arch Support who’s digging down, right alongside Holidays at the Farm… Coming up the inside, Mayday Maria! … Erma Lee’s running a remarkable race on the far outside… It is still Arch Support!…. Arch Support holds on!”

The sight of a close finish, complemented by Durkin’s frantic description, leaves railbirds with pounding hearts; joyous or crushed, waving tickets or staring blankly across the track like stunned ballplayers sitting in the dugout after losing the World Series.

My day got a lot better when that nine-horse I’d wagered on — a two-year-old named Powhatan County — won the seventh race at 7-to-1 odds, and in the last race I pooled a few dollars with Kevin, his sister Ann and his son John on a four-horse trifecta box. “We’re going to send you home a rich man,” promised Kevin.

n’t quite turn out that way, but an eight-dollar wager across the board on the winner put me ahead on the day. I’d arrived with $300 and was leaving with $385, and for me that’s about as good as it gets.

After Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” wafted out over the grounds, Kevin and Maureen invited me to their Travers Stakes party. Sure, I said, send me directions.

I took the back roads home, got lost and wound up driving north on Route 22 past fields of Queen Ann’s Lace and golden rod, and signs for second-cut hay, local milk and fresh eggs.

In the small hamlet of Salem I followed a red Audi with Massachusetts plates as it turned onto County Road 153 toward the looming Green Mountains of Vermont. The road intersected with Route 30 and I followed it down through Manchester, past Bromley and Stratton into Brattleboro.

It was dusk, and bugs smeared the windshield like sleet in a winter storm. But it was summer and the Yankees were playing the Indians on XM Radio and there was no traffic and I was thinking about Kevin’s party. Of course I’d go, and I’d be there in my Saratoga t-shirt with the shamrock on the back.

Chip Ainsworth is a sportswriter in Northfield, Massachusetts.

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