The pre-season

I’ve never been up in Saratoga for the Sunday open house, so I cruised over for an hour yesterday afternoon. The best thing that I can say about it is that, having now been once, I will no longer feel the compulsion to go away. Great for kids, and the Jump Start steeplechase/ fundraiser event was well-attended and generating lots of buzz, but aside from the pure thrill of being on the grounds at Saratoga after nine and half months away, I can’t say that I’d return.

I ran into the vet who’s taken care of my family pets for thirty years (and whom Madison and Floyd will be visiting later today); his daughter is now the assistant racing secretary for the Maryland Racing Association, and I learned today that she’s married to a Maryland-based trainer. A former flat racer that he used to train came in second in the first steeplechase event Sunday afternoon.

I watched the first two races, adjusting my racing expectations to both the shorter mile and a quarter an eighth track (it seems so small after the Belmont oval) and the longer steeplechase races; instead of horses beginning in what feels like another zip code and appearing only at the very end of the race, they started in front of us and went by three times. Cliché though it is, the intimacy of Saratoga was welcome after the enormity of Belmont.

Tom Durkin was on hand to call the five non-betting jump races, and his voice was different, more portentous; do steeplechase races require more gravitas than flat racing?

The tables that looked like this five weeks ago

are now neatly arranged in rows, until Wednesday, when patrons will configure them to their own tastes.

Having spent much of Saturday in an electricity-deprived Belmont Park, I was none too enthused when, late Sunday afternoon, an archetypical Saratoga thunderstorm crashed through, taking much of the town’s electricity with it. Fortunately, power was soon restored, and fortunately, our restaurant of choice was up and running.

Pennell’s, a Saratoga institution, old-school Italian, has been around since 1922, and as it’s close to the tracks, it attracts a racing crowd, on their way home from the flat track or en route to harness racing. Last night, we were sitting next to a rather large party, one of whom was bemoaning the Saratoga meet and the way it caters to “picnickers” as opposed to horseplayers, relating anecdotes of getting shut out of multi-race exotics because he was stuck behind someone betting $2 to show. Seems to me that if you’ve spent any time at Saratoga, you’d figure out how to avoid this sort of situation, and be grateful for the multitudes of $2 bettors who show up to create a fan base sorely lacking in New York racing the rest of the year.

Following Pennell’s, we capped off the night with a drink at the Adelphi, a downtown hotel since 1877 and a constant fixture of Saratoga’s allure—my family and I get there as often as we can in the summer to sip cocktails in the vintage lobby, and it’s a required stop for all of our visitors.

Bourbon in hand, surrounded by 19th century memories and evocations, I kicked off the Saratoga season. The racing business begins in earnest Monday evening, with the annual Saratoga preview at the National Museum of Racing.

5 thoughts on “The pre-season

  1. I go to open house mainly to get season passes. Typically all the kids stuff is out by the paddock, but, because of the threat of rain, most everything was moved indoors yesterday making things cramped.Did you see the new $15,000 per seat VIP area? I don’t think that’s going to be a big hit.I hate to pick nits, but the track is 1 1/8, and that wasn’t Tom Durkin. I’m pretty sure it was Marshall Cassidy.Love Pennell’s.

  2. ljk is right. The dirt course is 1 1/8 mile, the turf is 1 mile and inner turf is 7/8.Surprisingly, I was able to get my season pass fairly easy yesterday @ open house. I also threw down $5 bucks for a smart car raffle to benefit BEST. I think the VIP area is a bit out of place and not worth 15G’s. Good call on Pennells and the Adelphi Hotel. Hey if you are interested it is currently listed for sale at $7,785,000. What do you say?

  3. Oops–thanks for catching me on the track distance. I walked the exterior of the track last summer and well know that it’s a mile and an eighth…good to know that when my internal editor lets me down, others are on the job!I asked someone whether it was Durkin and was told yes, but that means nothing. Would certainly explain why it didn’t sound like him. Agree about the VIP seat area, and the new air-conditioned areas by the paddock are downright ugly. Functional, for sure, and I’m sure that they’ll be appreciated, but they look so modernly out of place next to the paddock.

  4. So wait a minute, now it was “I asked someone whether it was Durkin and was told yes” . A litte backpedaling–gimmee a break

  5. Anon: didn’t mean to backpedal; meant, in fact, to admit that I was wrong (twice in one post!). It sounded a little like Durkin, but not quite right; I asked someone (clearly with as ill-developed an auditory sense as I), who told me it was. I should have confirmed. No backpedalling at all…I really can swear, though, by everything else in the post. I swear.

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