In the 19th century, wealthy New Yorkers boarded private trains and traveled to Saratoga Springs to bathe in the healing mineral waters and experience what is still regarded by many devotees of the sport as the best thoroughbred racing in the country.
Little has changed 144 years later as the Saratoga Race Track opens on Friday, July 20th featuring the finest racing in the country through Labor Day, September 3rd. What is different now is that one doesn’t have to be a robber baron to experience Saratoga. The city welcomes families and horseplayers alike with a wide range of activities, fine dining, and an exciting night life.
Start your trip to Saratoga by booking a room in one of the many stately Victorian inns close to the racetrack. One standout is the popular Chestnut Tree Inn at 9 Whitney Place, a 15 minute walk to the racetrack or downtown. (www.chestnuttreein.net) 1-888-243-7688.
Owned by Cathleen and Bruce DeLuke for more than 20 years, the Chestnut Tree Inn is decorated with antiques and features a large old-fashion wraparound porch perfect for enjoying a complimentary glass of wine after the races. The rooms are clean and comfortable and free WiFi is available.
One favorite restaurant of the racing set is Chez Pierre, a beautiful French restaurant outside of town run by the husband and wife team of Joe and Pierrette Baldwin. Joe, an ex-G.I, met his wife in France and fell in love with her and her country’s cuisine. He studied with a French chef until he became a master himself and now whips up classic French dishes with an American twist. (www.chezpierrererestaurant.com) 518-793-3350.
Visitors to Saratoga also enjoy attending performances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center or, as it is better known, SPAC. Experience a performance by the New York City Ballet or the Philadelphia Orchestra either in the amphitheater or on the spacious lawn under the stars. Kids twelve and under are free on SPACS lawn for these attractions. (www.spac.org)
The main attraction, however is the legendary racetrack built in 1864. Saratoga is the gold standard of American racing and some of history’s greatest thoroughbreds have raced there including Man O’War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Rachel Alexandra and Curlin. There are stake races almost every day, opportunities to see two year old horses race for the first time and because it is known as “The Graveyard of Champions” a good opportunity to make some money gambling taking the long odds.
To plan a day at Saratoga start with a long standing tradition – breakfast at Saratoga. and watch the horses during their morning workouts between 7:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Children will enjoy the free backstretch tour on a tram.
The racetrack opens again at 11:00 a.m. with the first post at 1:00 p.m. Patrons can purchase grandstand seats each morning for that day’s races at the Reserved Seat Sales Office at the Union Avenue Gate of the racetrack beginning at 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. The limit is four per person, cash only.
Because seats are difficult to obtain during the meet, visitors should consider making a reservation in one of the tracks many restaurants (888-516-NYRA). The food is standard American fare, but having a seat in the crowded clubhouse or grandstand makes it worthwhile.
Many prefer to picnic in Saratoga’s backyard and watch the horses walk through the crowd into the paddock. Danny Meyer’s Shack Shake is a popular addition to the backyard fare, but you can bring your own food and lounge chair and relax for the day.
For a real treat and to benefit the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) join popular race caller Tom Durkin in the announcer’s booth as he calls the third race of the day. Participants will also receive souvenirs of the day including an embroidered baseball hat and a photograph on the roof of the Saratoga Racetrack with Tom. To reserve call (516) 488-3434. Tickets are $100 per person.
While it helps to have a knowledge of pari-mutual betting, anything can happen at Saratoga so if you like the grey horse at 20 to 1, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Many long shots come in a Saratoga. However, there are some jockeys and trainers to watch. Todd Pletcher has a powerhouse stable and has won the training title at Saratoga for the past two years. There is also Linda Rice, one of the top female trainers in the country who excels with young horses and is a master of turf sprints.
There are numerous turf races at Saratoga and they are dominated by trainers Christopher Clement and Bill Mott. Some of the best jockeys in the country come to Saratoga. Cornelio Velasquez and newly minted Hall of Famer John Velazquez dominated the standings, but keep on eye on newcomers Joel Rosario, Julien Leparoux and Rosie Napravik. Another attraction at Saratoga is steeplechase racing, which is incredibly fun to watch.
After a day at the races, many head over to Siros, right next to the track, which features bands in its backyard area. This has become the place to be seen after the races including many beautiful women adorned with colorful hats.
Saratoga truly comes alive at night with free festivals downtown, jazz clubs, and other attractions. Those who over do it, often head to a relaxing mineral bath and massage in the morning at the Lincoln Mineral Baths (www.saratogaspastatepark.org) 518-583-2880.
Whether you are a horseplayer, a ballet aficionado, music lover, antique collector, or a gourmand, Saratoga Springs has something to offer. What was once a playground for the rich is now a beautiful respite from city life that welcomes everyone with a full menu of exciting things to do and see.