Saratoga saddling

What a fun week it’s been! E-mails and Facebook comments and phone calls and website comments, all dropping nuggets of information about when the paddock at Saratoga changed.

The saddling area under the trees at Saratoga is so iconic, and Saratoga itself so steeped in history, and Saratoga fans so aware of that history, that I continue to be surprised that no one who got in touch could definitively say, “Yes, I remember, it was _____.”

Then again, I know that I was in that backyard in the early and mid-80’s, and I have no recollection of the change.  How can that be?

The memories that people have offered, and they research that they did, have made the last week a fun trip down Saratoga memory lane. Here they are:

Seth Merrow of Equidaily sent along a link to a 1995 Times-Union article that puts the change at 1983:

According to John Mangona, the resident year-round manager of the racetrack grounds since 1960, a saddling shed was erected 12 years ago in the area of the paddock farthest from the public viewing area. Before the shed was available, trainers and grooms would saddle horses out in the open, closer to the patrons.

Rob Levine, on the Brooklyn Backstretch Facebook page, provided links to several New York Times articles written by Steve Crist in 1986, in which Crist refers to “the new saddling areamore than once and quotes NYRA president Gerard McKeon on “the new paddock.”

Nick Zito says that he distinctly remembers saddling filly Lucy Manette under the trees in 1985; her past performances reveal that she did indeed run at Saratoga on August 18 of that year. In her first and only start for Zito, she ran in an allowance, finishing seventh by two and three quarter lengths. That must have been one fun finish.

In a comment on the original post, National Museum of Racing historian Allan Carter wrote,

The saddling area under the elm trees was replaced by the enclosed paddock in 1985. I have many memories of the saddling area. It was hopeless to even try to see such stars as Ruffian or Secretariat. It was even too crowded on the day I went to see a white New York bred named ?Clarence Stewart?. The scariest time was when a runaway horse was charging toward me. Luckily a civilian grabbed hold of him. I’m sure that incidents like that persuaded the insurance companies to force NYRA to forego the obvious charm of the elm trees for the safety of the enclosed paddock.

Bennett Liebman, head of Albany Law School’s Racing and Gaming Law Program, continues the insurance theme while adding another source of information:

I could locate an article from the Post-Standard in Syracuse from 1987 talking about the fact that horses were no longer saddled under the trees. Twenty years ago, I asked Jerry McKeon, then the president of NYRA, about why the practice was discontinued. He said simply, “Insurance.”

Here’s John Mangona who was the resident property manager at Saratoga talking in August of 1987.

“Kids like the horses. This is a chance to let them see them. We have a saddling area in the back yard they can watch. The horses used to be saddled under the trees and you could really get close to them. But now, because of all the insurance problems, we have an enclosed area.”

Offering a vote for whatever conclusion Carter comes to, Liebman wrote, “If Allan says so, it is a mortal lock.”

Liebman also offered some personal memories of the saddling areas:

While you could choose to saddle in the paddock, most trainers continued to saddle their horses under the trees outside the paddock until this system was ended in the mid-1980’s.

One of my brother’s favorite memories of Saratoga tree saddling is from the 1982 Travers where he watched Howie Tesher apply a relaxing back massage to Jorge Velasquez before he mounted Gato Del Sol.  It didn’t help.

My best memory is from the 1977 Hopeful. There were hundreds of people near Alydar – including Lucien Laurin. There were only a handful of people including the Wolfson family around Affirmed. It made for a great contrast and eventually a great race and rivalry.

Reader Aqueductjim left a comment on the original post, quoting a 1988 article from the Miami Herald, written by Bill Braucher

The result is a mess of a vast picnic under the elms in the back yard, where horses were once saddled in plain view of the people betting on them. That was before Saratoga became a happening instead of a race meeting. Horses and riders are now confined to a circular paddock, where they may be spotted over the crowd by an NBA forward.

Thanks to reader Carol Snyder Valdez, her father Harry wrote with this information:

According to Mark Costello who was the Resident Manager at Saratoga from 1968 to 1978 and who drew the plans for the saddling enclosure, the enclosure and saddling shed were built around 1975-1976.  He doesn’t have access to the plans anymore.  He left Saratoga in 1978 to become NYRA’s vice-president of properties.  I have been a state racing commissioner since 1980, and I know that the enclosure was done at least a few years before that.

What seems clear is that there was a period of transition, that changes were made to the paddock/walking ring/saddling area over a period of years, and that from 1986 onward, horses are saddled and walked as we see them now, in the beautiful Saratoga paddock that is not quite as beautiful as the area under the trees, where fans now congregate and gamble and drink and picnic.

I don’t know whether this information is enough to settle the bet that began this conversation, when a friend inquired about the change.  But if it does, and if the wager is sizable, I’ll see if I can get you all a cut…you certainly deserve it!  Thank you for the time you put in, and the anecdotes you shared, and the articles you tracked down.  If you’ve got any photos of that backyard saddling area…

Doug Blackburn, “Electricity and Intimacy Make Paddock A Must Stop At Track,” Times-Union, July 16, 1995.

Bill Braucher, “When Betting, It’s Smart to Ignore Weather,” Miami Herald, September 7, 1988.

Steve Crist, “Crowd Off, Bets Up as Saratoga Opens,” New York Times, July 31, 1986.

Steve Crist, “Sports of the Times; Sure Things at Saratoga,” New York Times, July 26, 1986.

Steve Crist, “Refurbished Saratoga to Open Today,” New York Times, July 30, 1986

“Manager Wants Families to Have Fun at Race Track,” Syracuse Post-Standard, August 16, 1987.

8 thoughts on “Saratoga saddling

  1. Teresa,

    That was fascinating. In addition, I was pleased to see Doug Blackburn’s byline from 1995. A few years earlier he worked for the Amsterdam Recorder when I was there. He encouraged me to write in addition to making picks and provided some advice.

  2. Thanks, Ken and Nick. I’ve now got links to some of the other articles, and I’ll update before too long (I hope).

    So I guess we have Mr. Blackburn to thank, eh, Nick?

  3. I just stumbled onto your blog and, as a lover of and visitor to Saratoga since 1962 (my first day at the track was the Jaipur-Ridan Travers), I loved your photos of the track in the autumn. Here’s a question I’m wondering about–for many years, the well-heeled had to walk in the mud/grass, etc. to stand within the paddock when their horses were saddled. Do you know what year they finally paved a walkway? I used to kind of feel sorry for them. Kind of 😉


    • Hi, Jane–thanks for the kind words! Yes, there are several walkways through the paddock now, though I think that there are also still a lot of heels that get back to the clubhouse with a fair amount of dirt and grass on them. =)

  4. As a brief comment for Jane’s interest in the paved walkway that crosses the Saratoga paddock, it seems to me that former president, CEO, chairman of the board of trustees and all-around mover and shaker, Kenny Noe, might be credited with that improvement. Upon his New York return in 1994 several changes up here were credited to him including the paved Winner’s Enclosure at the Finish Line, paved roadways in the backstretch and the formal Union Avenue brick and ironwork entrances. Kenny was into making very tangible changes wherever he could and he made his mark between 1995 and 1998, I believe.

  5. Just stumbled on this post and would add that I’m sure I have some photos of horses being saddled under the trees in the backyard (pre-saddling enclosure) since I started going to Saratoga in the very early 1960s and we’d sit back there in the shade on our folding chairs – for a horsey kid, it was the best place to be! Convenient to the paddock (which had just a single wooden fenceline, not the double PVC fencing found there today). The photos I have from the early 1960s are likely black-and-white prints taken with my Kodak Brownie camera since I was not even 10 years old at that point. I’ll dig around in my photo boxes to see what I can find. Might even have some color prints and slides of horses under the trees from the later 1960s, when I graduated to a 35-mm SLR camera.

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