The August Place To Be

What are we fretting about these days?

Rain. A lot of it. Every day. On turf or off? Who’s scratched? How am I supposed to bet this race? My feet are wet again.

We’re grumbling about too many turf sprints and not enough older horses. We’re bemoaning the lack of horses who can capture our imagination. We’re whining about the lack of good three-year-olds. We’re agitating about synthetic surfaces and horse safety. We’re grousing about increased take-out and inconsistent stewards. Much is rotten, it seems, in the state of racing.

Evening Attire won a few weeks ago and is now Breeders’ Cup-worthy, but Lava Man came in last and was retired. Where can a racing fan feel good these days?

You know: Saratoga.

I know, I know–there’s not a graded stakes race this weekend. Quelle horreur! Such a deplorable state of affairs that calls are coming in to shorten the meet; criticism abounds of selling out to ESPN and having five major stakes races on opening weekend, none left for weekend three.

Well, aren’t we spoiled?

For nearly a century and a half, writers have waxed rhapsodic about the joys of the Saratoga racing season; in August of 1864, the New York Times wrote of opening day of the first meeting at the track’s current site:

Neither pains nor expense have been spared to render [the new racecourse]
perfect in all its departments. The soil of the running ground is
admirably suited for racing purposes, being a soft loam as level as a
billiard-table.

The spacious grand stand is a model of elegance, with its covered balconies, broad stairways, retiring and refreshment rooms, ladies’ boudoirs and every needful convenience. There has seldom been such an assemblage of beauty and fashion on any race…Propriety reigned supreme, and the whole affair was so thoroughly respectful that we may justly quote the now progressing Saratoga meeting as a model institution.

2008 ain’t 1864, but some of what was written in that long-ago August still feels true; as I walked onto the grounds for the open house before the meet began, and as I walk in each day now, I feel the comfort of Saratoga envelop me: I first entered those gates in 1979, and there are few places that I’ve been going to for thirty years that remain as comfortingly familiar as the “flat track,” as we called it growing up. The stately white wooden buildings, the old, shady trees in the backyard, the tradition and history oozing from every corner…Saratoga is redolent of comfort, of familiarity, of warmth and nostalgia.

And while there are those who would take issues with the idea of the “Saratoga meeting” as a “model institution,” really, do we have it all that bad? Arguably, there is no more welcoming track than Saratoga in the United States. Big spender or $2 bettor, racing veteran or racing rookie, grandparent or grandchild, Saratoga looks at all of you, shakes your hand, and says, “Welcome.” It’s easy to attend the races and feel like you belong.

But Saratoga is more than atmosphere; lovely as it is, fans wouldn’t throng to it without the promise of excellent racing, a promise on which it frequently delivers. Of course there are maiden claimers and state-bred races, but the stars, both human and equine, are here, too. Some stay in California, yes, but we know that Zito and Mott and Pletcher and Jerkens and McGaughey will bring their best horses to Saratoga, because winning is always good, but winning at Saratoga is better.

It’s easy to get mired in complaining. There’s another power failure. The humidity is killing me. This is the worst card in the history of Saratoga. NYRA should be nicer to us. The betting machine is jammed. The price of beer is outrageous. It’s raining–again. They’ve cancelled the card? It’s Saturday, and there’s no graded stakes race.

But since last September, we’ve been counting down: Nine more months. Eight. Seven. Six. Ten weeks, five weeks, three weeks. Five more days. And now it’s here, this thing for which we have devoutly wished for so long, and we begin another countdown: Thirty-five more days, thirty-four, thirty-three…

It’s too good to waste time complaining. Perfect it’s not, but it’s close as we get. Enjoy every minute of it. We’ve only got twenty-one days left…

8 thoughts on “The August Place To Be

  1. We are fans and fan is a derivative of the word “fanatic”. As a fanatic, one possessed by excessive or irrational zeal, we sometimes get overexcited, overdemanding and yes, even overcritical. We want the best and sometimes get too irrational in wanting the best. But in the end, Saratoga is the best racetrack in America, the best place to be, and when I sit there this saturday afternoon (under sunny skies-yeah!) and the bell rings 17 minutes before post, there is no place else I would rather be

  2. I don’t know why people are complaining. No one can control the weather.As far as the racing cards, I see large bettable fields with plenty of AE’s. People need to consider they are in Saratoga and how lucky they are to be able to spend a significant amount of time there before moaning and groaning about the lack of stakes, weather, etc.Those who continue to moan and groan should be sentenced to Labor Day weekend at Philadelphia Park.Yeah, I’m cranky. I have good reason for it.

  3. The people in Saratoga for the meeting are the luckiest people in the world.It could rain every day, with sporadic hail and even twisters with flying cows—the August Place to Be.Check the cows—smiling.

  4. This post is filled with such romance and a wistful sense of mortality; it deserves a forum called something far more beautiful than “blog.” You are writing in a style that for a time could be found in the best newspapers, which long ago purged their romantics for a different kind of sports columnist — columnists strong on analysis but weak on the human things that ignite the imaginations and tug at the vulnerable hearts of grown children. If I ran a newspaper instead of toiling at the edges of one, I’d hire you in a minute. And as for Saratoga, you should see what the opening weekend at the mini meet at Laurel Park was like. Demoralizing isn’t close to being a sad enough word. Maryland used to produce such wonderful “hard-knocking” race horses, but I don’t know if we’ll see a decent horse run here the rest of the year, and that includes during the Maryland Million. The track and horsemen now scrape the dregs and present them for sale, and handle figures show very few are buying. Having it so bad here makes me appreciate how much you cherish your time in Saratoga that much more, Scrappy. — J.S.

  5. great article, august is the rainest month of the year in saratoga, we have seen this before. the racing has had great finishes, large fields and good prices, so stop whining and enjoy the greatest racing experience in the world and handicap. that is what the game is all about. enjoy because who knows whayt the politicans in albany have in store for ny racing in the future……..joe

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