The Saratoga Race Course

Millions flock to Saratoga Springs, New York to witness thoroughbred horse racing at the "grandmother" of American racetracks

Story by John Coleman
Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, official New York Racing Association photographer

Deep into the dog days of summer, as the long hot days seem to melt into one, it is a trumpet's sound that sparks life into Saratoga Springs. For six weeks of summer, from July 26th to September 4th, the Saratoga Race Course offers the best in thoroughbred horse racing. On some days during the season, the local population of Saratoga Springs quadruples from twenty-seven thousand to more than 100,000.

A horse
The historic grandstand offers track side seating.

The racetrack offers the best in thoroughbred horse racing. The feature race is the Travers Stakes, named for founder William Travers. This year will mark the 137th running of the Travers Stakes, which takes place on August 28th, and is ten years older than the Kentucky Derby. The Travers draws the largest real crowd of the year (all-time Travers record: 69,523 in 2002), with the Whitney Stakes drawing the second largest. 

Promotion days are also some of the most popular days of the year at the track. On these days, the track offers T-shirts, fleece blankets, mugs, and bobblehead dolls resembling popular jockeys. The large attendance on promotional days can usually be attributed to �spinners� or people that pay admission just to get the promo item, then leave, and then come back to get another until they are satisfied.

At the track, you can enjoy the action from the grandstand for $3 or mix it up with the upper echelon of society in the clubhouse for a $5 admission. For the less endowed, the �backyard� gives visitors the seating options of a shaded picnic table or picnic blanket, while watching the races on the many video monitors. While the track isn't visible from this area, those in the backyard have the ability to see the glistening thoroughbreds close up as they round the paddock nearby prior to a race. Coolers and picnic baskets are allowed, and alcohol is permitted.

the beginning of the race
And they're off!

According to Joseph Dalton Jr., president of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, the average daily attendance at the track is thirty thousand, and over one million visit the track annually. The average person spends $140 dollars per day at the track but, Dalton notes, �Coming to the track is more a social environment than a betting environment. While there are some big betters, most people just come with $20 and say, �When I run out, I run out."

"While there are some big betters, most people just come with $20 and say, 'When I run out, I run out.'"

Thoroughbred horse racing in Saratoga was a natural byproduct of casino gambling in the cities. Tourists, attracted by therapeutic spring water and baths, came to Saratoga Springs long before horse racing arrived. The waters attracted entrepreneurs and soon hotels, resorts, and casinos began popping up. In 1883, John Morrisey had the idea to keep casino gamblers busy with horse racing during daylight hours when casinos didn't operate. Morrisey's idea proved to be a good one and in 1884, racing moved from the �Horse Haven� (which remains across the street from the track) to the newly-built Saratoga Race Course.

William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and John Hunter built the 350-acre racetrack in 1863, making it America's oldest racetrack. Highlighted by the recognizable multi-spire grandstand, the Saratoga Race Course is often mentioned in the same breath as the sites of the three prestigious Triple Crown races-Churchill Downs, Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby; Pimlico, Maryland, home of the Preakness; and Belmont Park, New York, home of the Belmont Stakes.

Ten races are run every day but Tuesday, with one feature race each day.

In the past, the Saratoga Race Course has seen many inspiring stories and names like the true story of Seabiscuit. The Laura Hillenbrand inspirational novel-made-movie was set in the tumultuous 1930s and cast Tobey Maguire as Seabiscuit's ill-fated jockey, who rode the undersized horse to fame and glory.

The popularity of the movie led to a record-breaking season of attendance at the racetrack in 2003. Inspiration moved again in 2004, when Funny Cide, a horse locally bred in Saratoga won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but lost the Belmont Stakes, falling one race short of claiming the elusive Triple Crown. A street nearby the racetrack is now aptly named �Funny Cide Lane.� Other famous horses that have graced the track are Triple Crown winners War Admiral, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat.

The names of these horses along with legendary jockeys such as Pat Day and John Velaquez grace the walls across the street from the track in the National Horse Racing Museum and Hall of Fame at 191 Union Avenue.

The racetrack has been owned and run by the New York Racing Association since 1955. Before, it was run by independent, local associations. The New York Racing Association, which also owns and runs Belmont and Aqueduct, shares revenues with New York state. However, the association franchise agreement expires in 2007. In 2008, the racetrack will have a new owner.

There are contractual discrepancies between the racing organization and New York state about who should own the rights to the racetrack in 2008. According to Mike Kane, communications officer at the National Museum of Horse Racing and Hall of Fame, Governor Pataki has claimed the racetrack needs to be turned over to the state in 2007, however, the New York Racing Association objects. Only time will tell who the rightful owner will be.

dawn workout
Early morning workouts at the track.

Over the years, the track has seen its ups and downs. According to Kane, the track benefited when many illegal casinos went out of business in the late 40s and early 50s, while suffering slightly with the advent of off-track betting, which gained popularity in the 70s. However, the Saratoga Race Course success can be largely attributed to the thriving city nearby.

Unlike other race courses in America, the Saratoga Race Course remains in similar condition to when it was built. Original woodwork remains in the clubhouse and grandstand and little renovations aside from additional seating have been made.

"...citizens of Saratoga are vigilant and will do anything in their power to ensure its success."

"It is unrealistic to predict if the track can grow as it has in the past few years, but the future is bright for the track, and citizens of Saratoga are vigilant and will do anything in their power to ensure its success," Kane says.

Have you been to the Saratoga Race Course?

Other Saratoga Attractions:
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is another Saratoga hot-spot during summer months. The center is an outdoor amphitheater set against a backdrop of tall pines just miles away from downtown Saratoga Springs. Each summer, the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra call the performing arts center home. In addition to these venues, the lineup also includes concerts performed by the hottest names in rock and pop music. The music and the aura can't be beat.

On the bill for this summer:

June 16 to 17: The Dave Matthews Band with ALO
June 18: Nine Inch Nails with Bauhaus and special guest Peaches
July 1: The New Cars with Blondie

For up to date concert additions, check out Saratoga Performing Art Center's website.

The Saratoga Gaming and Raceway
offers the first video slot machines in New York, as well as traditional live harness racing on a half-mile track. The raceway, which opened in 1941, also offers food and dining amidst a "peaceful country setting." Last year alone, gamblers spent over $1.5 million dollars on video lottery terminals.

National Museum of Horse racing and Hall of Fame

Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday: noon to 4 p.m.

During the race meet, the museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

$7.00 adults, $5.00 students and senior citizens (55 and older); members and children five and under are free.

Pari-mutuel Betting:
By the time the famous trumpet sounds signaling post-time, you'd better have your bets in. To place a bet, you must relay your desired bet to the teller at the pari-mutuel/mutuel� window. First, you state the bet amount. Then state the type of bet, and the number worn by the horse or horses you've chosen. You then receive a printed ticket that you cash in back at the mutuel window if it's a winner.

There are many types of bets you can make on any given race. The most common is one for a horse to either win the race, place (the horse comes in first or second), or show (the horse finishes in either first, second, or third place). The greater the odds, the more money you can make; therefore, picking a �long shot� with, say, 10 to 1 odds to win, will make you more money than a horse that has a 3 to 1 chance to win.

The payout for �win, place, and show,� is displayed either on screen or on the scoreboard located on the track's infield following each of the ten or eleven races run at the racetrack per day. The dollar amounts displayed are based on a two dollar bet but give a winner a good idea how much they've won even if they placed a large bet.

Exacta: To win, you must choose the first and second finishers in exact order.

Trifecta: To win, you must choose the first, second, and third finishers in that order.

Superfecta: To win, you must choose the first four finishers in exact order.

Quinella: To win, chosen horses can finish first or second in any order.

Still confused? click here to better understand how pari-mutuel betting works.