By JoAnne Piterniak
When Schroonlaker.com asked me to write an “Insider’s Guide to Saratoga”, it was likely because I’m always bragging on Facebook about my racehorse. Either that or the racehorse tattoo on my ankle (yes, it hurt; yes, it’s permanent; and no I don’t regret it). Fact is, I own a small percentage of a racehorse in a partnership group. Like maybe a hoof. So if you’re looking for some hoity-toity, fancy hat-wearing-lady guide to the track, stop reading. If you’re looking for a fun day without breaking the bank, read on…
Are you a morning person?
There’s no sight more glorious than a Saratoga morning (except for sunrise over Schroon, but the two are close). You have the chance to watch athletes working out up close. When it’s a foggy morning and you can see the horses’ breath and steam coming off of them after a workout, it’s downright mystical.
Wanna go cheap? Skip the fly-infested, overpriced, reservation-only breakfast buffet. Take the Northway to exit 13N and hit the Stewart’s on the right for a breakfast sandwich and coffee to bring along. Then, turn right at Bar-B-QSA on Kayeross Ave. (you can come back here for dinner; the PJ’s original ribs are awesome). Follow this street as it becomes Nelson Avenue. You’ll see the track on your right, but keep going. Take a right onto Union Ave., then follow the signs for racetrack parking on your right. It’s ten bucks BUT you can get it back if you leave after morning workouts – check with the parking attendant for details.
Walk into the Clubhouse area (follow the signs) and go to the front (racetrack) side of the stands, and park yourself on a green bench. You’ll get a better view than the overpriced breakfast people, and be able to hear expert commentary on the horses and “who’s who” from Mary Ryan, who’s been doing this shtick for years.
They’re also building a wretched-looking viewing stand across Union Ave. at the training track, but steer clear of that one – Mary will give you some great information and you’ll get a feel for the track and how the grounds are laid out. You can also take a tram tour of the backstretch. This is the barn area where the horses spend the bulk of their time. It will give you a little more of that “insider feel” for Saratoga.
When you’ve had enough, grab the car – leave by 10 am to get your parking fee back! – and head across Union Ave. to the excellent National Museum of Racing. If you’ve got an Entertainment Book, they sometimes offer a “buy one, get one free” deal on admission. If not, it’s still worth the price.
Twelve dollar burger?
Not for us! Pack sandwiches from home, or pop into town after you go to the museum to get something to go. Putnam Market on Broadway has unique sandwiches made-to-order, and all of the fixin’s for a great picnic. There’s a good-sized public parking lot in back – always a key feature in Saratoga during the summer. Barring these options, there is something called “Restaurant Row” inside of the track. You can patronize local businesses such as Hattie’s Chicken Shack, but you will pay higher prices.
Park the car
Time-honored tradition dictates that you park on someone’s lawn. It will cost between 4-6 bucks on weekdays, more on weekends. Head back to Nelson Ave. across from the track for plenty of choices. We’ve parked for years with the guy who has the gray house with red shutters. You can’t miss him – he’s a dead ringer for Ernest Borgnine.
New York Racing Association (NYRA) does offer some limited, free parking on the racetrack grounds, which are extensive. If you’re coming off the Northway prior to the races, get off at exit 14 and stay in the right lane. Follow the signs to the right for free racetrack parking. Distance may require you to take a shuttle bus to get from your parking spot to the track, or a take a long walk.
Beer? Me? What?
Sometimes they’re funny about bringing your own beer into the track. Depends on the security guard – your cooler might not even get inspected. The risk is worth it when you see the beer prices inside. In any event, bring your beer in cans, and if you’d hate to part with it, use a hard plastic cooler and stash the beer at the very bottom, beneath some ice packs. Then lay your food on top of the ice packs. This usually works (so I’ve heard…). The one rule that all the guards follow – no glass bottles, ever.
When in doubt, ask!
Once you’re back inside the track for the races, those “May I help you” people in red vests and goofy hats seem helpful. I’ve never used their services since I’ve been running around Saratoga for a good four decades, but feel free to ask – information is always a good thing! They can steer you to important locations like bathrooms, where to buy a racing program, where to bet – the good stuff.
Bring your bag chairs – the lighter the better – and the cooler on wheels. You’re going to want to hang out in the picnic area. This means paying for Grandstand admission (the cheaper one) and following the crowd. Pick a shady spot near the horse path that leads into the paddock. To guess whether you’ll be in shade all day, the sun tracks over the paddock enclosure (where the horses get saddled prior to each race), and then over the Big Red Spring behind the paddock.
If your heart is set on getting a picnic table, they’re “first come, first served”. So if you hit the workouts super early – like when the gates open at 7 am – bring a tablecloth and grab your table. It’s a mad dash free-free-all on the weekends. Elbows out and run!
With regard to the Big Red Spring, it’s named after the legendary Secretariat. The spring is one of the dozens that dot the greater Saratoga area. Some have water that tastes sweet, clean and pure – Big Red does not. Unless you find the flavor of sulfur delicious.
Up close and personal
For sheer drama, nothing beats watching a race start up close. This isn’t possible for the turf (grass) races. You can tell this from the diagram in the program. If it says “main track” and the race is a mile and an eighth, they’re going to start the race right in front of the stands. Grab a spot along the fence as close to the finish line as you can get as soon as the previous race is over. Your wait will be rewarded – you get to watch the start and the finish up close, and witness the winner’s circle photo.
A few more traditions that are exclusive to Saratoga take place here. The first is the ringing of a bell 17 minutes prior to each race, which can be heard throughout the property. This is a holdover from the old, old days before public address systems. It tells everybody that it’s time for the horses to be saddled in the paddock. Saratoga is the only track in the country to keep the tradition of the saddling bell.
After the horses are saddled, they’ll come out of the paddock to your right. If you like music, keep your eye out for Sam the Bugler, who plays the “call to post” before each race. Sam is a jazz musician on the side, and if he’s feeling playful, he might “riff” a bit on the bugle after the call to post. Feel free to say hello when he’s finished – Sam is hard to miss in his English hunting uniform, and he enjoys meeting the fans.
Another good spot involves some walking. Again, this is best for a “main track” race. Leave via the Nelson Ave. gate (ask the funny vest people where it’s located) and make sure you go to the “re-entry” gate and get a hand stamp. That way, you can get back into the track without paying admission again. Walk past the funny looking steel trailers with balconies (more overpriced food…) and find a spot along the white railing.
This is called the Clubhouse turn and it’s a great place to watch the finish and see the horses pull up (stop running) after a race, and then gallop back to get unsaddled. Keep an eye on how the jockeys treat the horses at this point – they forget that people are still watching. It’s here that you’ll see who’s kind to animals and a true horseman, and who isn’t. You may decide you prefer a certain rider, which leads us to…
Graveyard of Favorites? Whatever.
Gambling. This is the place, and frankly, it’s a lot more interactive than pressing a button in a casino and leaving it to random chance. You pick the horse, you make the bet – it’s all on you. Saratoga is called the “Graveyard of Favorites” because of the notable horses who have been defeated there over the years. You may have heard names like Man O’ War and Secretariat – champions who have been beaten by longshots at Saratoga.
The point here is that when they open those gates, anything can happen. Just about any horse can win, unless he’s completely outclassed by the competition, feels lousy that day, isn’t in the mood…you see the point. So if you’ve taken a walk to the Clubhouse turn and like the way a certain rider behaves, bet him or her every race they ride. If the trainer has the same name as your brother in law, bet a few bucks. Gray horses are pretty? Like red silks (jockey shirts)? Bet on them! Just have fun with it.
Outside of the admission gates, you’ll see people selling brightly colored “tip sheets”, hollering about how many winners they had yesterday. Just ask yourself: If this guy is getting rich picking the horses, why is he out here sweating in the hot sun trying to sell you his “winning picks”? Give the money to the nearby Salvation Army nun with the little tambourine instead.
The Art of Spinning
Nope, not a segue into dancing. Spinning happens during four Sundays during the Saratoga meet. A free gift is received with each paid admission. So for a few bucks, you’ve got a Christmas present for an out-of-towner who won’t know it only cost three bucks. Spinning involves going into the track and paying admission repeatedly.
Usually I drop off my stuff on the lawn near the paddock, and then go spinning. Since you aren’t allowed to buy multiple admissions for one person, you have to keep “spinning” through the turnstiles until you have redemption coupons for all the souvenirs you want to get. Avoid spinning the Nelson Ave. gate – lines are long and the sun is hot. Union Ave. has more gates and offers shade, and puts you closer to the next step.
After you’ve gotten your coupons, you’ll get in another line near the Big Red Spring to trade them in for the gifts. This line allows multiples of six, so if you’re getting more than six items, you’ll need to go through this line more than once. And don’t forget a bag to carry all of your loot home!
Leave before the last race and you’ll beat a LOT of traffic out of the area. Even if you’ve lost money, you’ve spent the day outdoors, had a picnic, gotten some exercise, and seen some beautiful creatures. It’s certainly kept me coming back for more!