What’s new at Saratoga

Four more days. Four more days! Four. More. Days.

I’m sitting in the Saratoga press box on Monday morning, watching a sudden Saratoga downpour with some vintage Saratoga lightning and thunder. It’s a stark contrast to yesterday morning, which was gloriously sunny, if a little hot, for Saratoga’s annual Open House.

The day offered a little sneak peek at the track, and traditionalists may relax, or even rejoice a little, as there haven’t been any significant changes in the way the track looks, and the few visible changes are definitely for the better.

While money has been spent on upgrades, much of it has been behind the scenes, according to NYRA president Charles Hayward.  Approximately $250,000 has been spent on the backstretch: upgrading electrical systems in dorm rooms, power-washing and repairing bathrooms, renovating barns.

On the front side, the old plastic fencing that lined the horse path and surrounded the paddocks has been replaced with wooden fences painted white…the design is more intricate but still simple, and is a huge improvement.  Wood over plastic? No-brainer.

New tote boards and video screens will greet those in the seats and on the apron (profoundly disappointing, no doubt, those scoreboard-watchers from the last few years who delighted in pointing out the difficulty of determining, based on blown-out bulbs, whether your horse was 3-1, 6-1, or 8-1). And if I’m not mistaken, the old video screen in the back, just behind the clubhouse, is new as well.

Bye, Carvel. Hi, Dunkin Donuts.

And yes, the Dunkin Donuts Daily Double will be back this year…joined by this little gem. Get yours while they last in Dunkin Donuts from the Berkshires to central New York.

In other food and beverage news, Stephen Travers, director of restaurant operations and group sales, previewed for me last week some welcome changes, including a concerted effort to make a day at the races more attractive and less expensive.

Visitors will find $5 value meals on offer, such as a hot dog, chips, and a soda for $5, and a 12 oz. domestic draft beer will be $3 (imports will be $4).

The Jim Dandy bar on the ground floor of the clubhouse is being renovated and re-organized, with the circular bar in the center moved off to the right, along the wall.

Backyard denizens will find their areas less cluttered, as many of the vending carts have been removed to make walking around a little easier and to clean up the look of the landscape.

Travers and Hayward both struck fear into my heart when they mentioned that the lemonade vendors would be gone. No lemonade vendors? No Saratoga summer lemonade? The panic in my eyes and voice hastened Travers to add that the lemonade – made with the same recipe – would still be available at many locations around the track.

“We’re trying,” said Travers, “to bring the track into the 21st century while at the same time keeping the charm of Saratoga.”

Friday’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 94 – nothing like kicking off the meet with a serious dose of heat and humidity.  But it’s better than rain (fingers crossed!), and in July, I’ll take Saratoga heat over moderate temperatures anywhere else.

I’ll be covering the meet for the Saratogian again this year, with a few articles planned for later in the week. Please follow me on Twitter and “like” the Brooklyn Backstretch page on Facebook for photos, updates, and comments from now until closing day.

Four more days!

30 thoughts on “What’s new at Saratoga

  1. Hopefully, they’ll be bringing Saratoga into the 21st century (not the 20th) while retaining its charm. (Mr. Travers’s century mistake or your typo?)

    Love the new paddock fence design. Perhaps not as durable, but infinitely more attractive than PVC, and well worth the trade-off.

    Have a good meet!

  2. Have fun! Be glad it will only be 94 Friday, our forecast calls for a cool 100 degrees before the heat index!

  3. The $64,000 question: what’s the beer situ at the Paddock Bar this year? It appears that Union Square Hospitality had some falling out with Brooklyn Brewery (no Brooklyn beers at Citi Field this year). I hope they’re not only offering filth beer at the Paddock Bar this year. Though the obvious workaround is bringing in my own Sixpoint cans, I’d still like to have the option of something decent on draft at the gool ol’ PB. Man cannot live on cocktails alone 😉


  4. Thanks, August.

    Leslie, as an amateur historian, I’m always living in the past.

    NJhorseplayer: have a wonderful trip. How could you do otherwise?

    Linda, almost NO air conditioning at the track, anywhere. And jackets required in the clubhouse. Ugh!

    Pete: serious stuff, there. If I can suss it out ahead of opening day, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, I’ll meet you there at 11:05 am and we’ll discover it together.

  5. I wrote this last week while reviewing changes here in the US to someone since her last visit 43 years ago:

    There have been changes at the big track at Saratoga,
    but I don’t think you would notice them if you came
    back. (I like that. That there haven’t been too
    many changes, I mean.)

    But I do notice. I’m not happy to hear that some of the “food carts” are gone. They’ve never been in my way. Fixing the tote board would only be better if they went back to the way it was 43 years ago when the prices for one race were posted until the horses for the next race came out on the track. And the video board that blocks the view of the backstretch is a disgrace. (There are enough TV monitors all over the place for folks who want to watch TV images race around the track.)

    The biggest change since 43 years ago is that the horses no longer saddle under the trees. My friend might not remember. But I do.

  6. Hi Teresa, yeah, I like that lemonade, too. Haven’t made Saratoga opening day for a few years, but it might work for me and the lad this week. Exciting stuff.

  7. ML/NJ,

    Your friend’s last visit to Saratoga corresponds to my first as a racetrack working stiff; 1968 was a great year for Saratoga Race Course and for me, too.

    As an entry clerk in the Racing Secretary’s Office that year — the RSO then located about where the current Jock’s Room is placed now — I had a ringside view of the saddling before every race during which I wasn’t otherwise occupied with my business duties. I remember one particular saddling of a Neloy horse, I think, and the “dancing” presence of one of the owners’ wives, a beautiful woman, dressed to the nines and balancing a small wicker basket under one shoulder.

    As she scurried around the saddling tree to avoid her skittish horse, that basket surprisingly emptied its frightened kitten, that, once on the ground, raced screeching into the distance. Those two-and-a-half seconds of free flight and hit-the-road-running-to-the-fences kitten-breakout left the horse jumping in all directions and dozens of enthralled fans running for their lives, the beautiful woman with her now-empty basket included.

    Inside the office we all laughed (with relief nobody was killed!) and went on to laughingly tell this story to our friends. We still do….

    Yes, those saddling trees were special! And, they are missed.

  8. You’re looking at tying the record high temperature on Friday. If this were Belmont on the last week of the meet (as it was prior to last year), racing would have been canceled in all likelihood if the forecast holds and might anyway at Saratoga (they canceled one program in 2006 when it got to 95 degrees, which is Friday’s forecast high temp).

  9. Mr. Cassidy’s amusing post also reminds me that I have, indeed, unearthed two color snapshots I took (in the mid-late 1960s) of horses being saddled under the trees with nary a rail or rope to separate them from the crowd. One of the photos is dated 1968, of course. I will bring them for you when we connect during the meet. (I heartily agree, Mr. Cassidy, those saddling trees were special and, while I understand the need for increased safety and security, they are part of what made Saratoga unique, and are much missed.)

  10. 5 bucks….about time. Went to Delaware Park last week and a hot dog, potatoe salad and a bottle of soda went for 5 bucks. People don’t want to gamble and pay alot for food. Is fountain soda still going to be 4 bucks? What a joke that is. They need customer happy price models…it looks like they are headed in the right direction with the 5 bucks deal.

  11. ML/MJ: 43 years ago the number of wagering options was much diminished, and I can understand why bettors want to be able to get more information about odds and will-pays. Seems sensible to me. And I think that Saratoga, unlike many other tracks, has actually done a great job of keeping the view of the race unobstructed. I hope that you’ll find the changes this year more to your liking.

    Gallantfox: Hope you make it. If not Friday, then later in the week?

    But Marshall…what about the kitten?!

    I’ll look forward to the photos, Leslie.

    Linda: you do NOT have to get dressed up unless you want to be in the clubhouse boxes. Shorts suffice everywhere else…much to the dismay of some who think that people should dress up for a day at the races.

    Walt, I’d say to cross that bridge when we get to it.

    Jason: as someone who regularly spends $10 and upwards on beverages at sporting events, Saratoga has never seemed that expensive to me, especially because people can bring in their own. But certainly, lowering prices is a good thing.

  12. Hi Teresa.

    You need to come down to Monmouth. No ugly screens block ones view of the backstretch, and they seem to have found a way to leave the prices up until it’s time for the next race. It the way Saratoga was seven years ago. More isn’t always progress.

  13. OK, I will wear nice shorts when I actually make it up there 🙂

    And I am wondering what happened to the kitten too….

  14. Wow! Offering to save a picnic table is quite a sacrifice. Though I suppose your reporting has you there early enough that you might sneak back and reserve one before the hoards descend? For me it would be an early alarm and fighting the masses (which I still do a couple of times each summer).

    Personally, I think the light bulb gripe was legitimate. This is supposed to be America’s elite meeting after all, and all it would have taken is some light bulbs and a few hours labor. So I’m looking forward to the new video screens for results, odds, probables, etc. I completely agree though that it’s nuts to make the effort, pay for admission and seats, and then watch on TV. They’ll rent you binoculars.

    Like the new paddock fence, the little copper accents are classy. Taller than the old fences but I doubt that will stop the rug rats from climbing.

    No lemonade carts? I’m concerned. Nothing better than Spa lemonade with a healthy splash of raspberry vodka. Now I guess we’ll be in line with the folks getting beer and hot dogs…

  15. Jackets in the clubhouse required, and a forecast in the 90’s on Friday, have they no mercy? Humans have managed to survive for thousands of years by adapting to the weather conditions. Obviously, tradition means more than health, and sweating profusely. Maybe, it’s time to take humans, as well as equines into consideration.

  16. LJK: those tables are strictly guarded from the wee hours, so even if I wanted to be sneaky (which I don’t) and get back there to steal a table, not a chance. In all seriousness, the guards do a great job of making sure that people with passes don’t get first dibs. Funny, funny stories to tell about it, actually.

    And agreed about the light bulbs…but also worth making a little sport of. 🙂

    I was assured that the lemonade will be here. We’ll see Friday how easy it is to find.

    August: talk to the old guard. They dig in about the jackets. I think.

  17. Okay, okay. I defined the woman as “beautiful.” Her kitten was retrieved and delivered by more than one young Diamond Jim Brady in the rough….

  18. Teresa, could you please check on something. Races are carded for Friday but, for the 2 Maiden Special Weight for 2 year-old fillies, races going 5 1/2 furlongs, one for open company, one for New York Breds, the purses are $50,000 and $40,000, respectively. What happened to the $60,000 purses they were just running for at Belmont? Something stinks.

  19. For August Song – On the hottest days the clubhouse staff comes around to tell gentlemen that it is OK to take off their jackets. My father was not a big racing fan, but he indulged his family and came along. The tap on the shoulder and the nod that he could take off his jacket would make his day. That, or the clam chowder on a cool day. Can’t wait to be back. I will hope to run into Teresa this weekend and ask directions to the lemonade.

  20. August, if I get a chance, I’ll look into it. Working on a bunch of time-sensitive projects at the moment, though, so I may not get a chance.

    That’s a big relief about the kitten!

  21. Thanks, Lynne and Teresa for your responses. Now, the next big question is: Will they cancel racing on Friday because of the oppressive heat, that is forecast for Friday at 94 degrees, and Saturday at 93. It’s supposed to cool off on Sunday, only 82. Stay cool!

  22. August – I wondered the same thing about the possibility of cancelling due to the heat..

    Marshall – Thanks for the update on the kitten 🙂

  23. Canceling for 95 deg weather two years ago or whatever it was, was extremely foolish. Really, does anyone think it had never been 95 deg at the Spa in the past? Now if they race on Friday and probably Saturday too, and some horse goes down for whatever reason, the PETA folks will be calling for the track to be shut down entirely. (Remember Wonderland?) It’s really a very precarious situation for horse racing.

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