First thoughts on the new Saratoga

On Monday, I got a release informing me that today, NYRA would unveil its proposed capital improvements for Saratoga Race Course, and that tonight, it would hold a community forum to get public opinion on the proposals.

Really?  Really? On one of the FOUR days of the whole meet that I won’t be there? Really?

Having read, written, heard, and talked extensively about Saratoga’s architectural history this summer, I find something wildly unfair in the timing of this whole thing.

But onward.

If you paid any attention to what Paul Roberts said in his lecture about Saratoga on August 10, you knew that some pretty big changes were in store. While extolling Saratoga’s architectural virtues and history, he also emphasized, “Saratoga is a story of constant change,” change necessary to meet the needs of the racing public.

I’ve been bracing myself ever since.

A NYRA press release details the proposals and includes renderings that will be on display at the track this weekend. Not having had a chance to see the renderings in full or up close, or to talk to anyone to get more information, here are some quick reactions. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

The new jockeys’ house above the current saddling stalls is visually interesting and it could be fun to watch the jocks hanging out up there between races. But to many of us, the walk to the paddock along the horse path from the current jockeys’ room is a staple of the Saratoga experience. The opportunity for photos, to get a close-up look, to steal an autograph, and yeah, even to trash talk a little are part of what makes Saratoga unique. The jockeys’ accessibility is an oft-lauded part of being at the track, and if that disappears, as it seems it will, I think it’s a loss.

Re-pitching the apron is a no-brainer good idea. Boxes at the top of each stairway? Withholding opinion until I can see more.

No problem at all with replacing the hideous At The Rail Pavilion and luxury suites on the clubhouse turn…if what replaces them is less hideous. Comfortable, upscale areas for patrons are a fact of life at modern sporting facilities, and Saratoga should have them. Just please, please, please let them be designed with some architectural authenticity and charm….which the current facilities utterly lack.

More backyard, less parking? Oh, yeah.

New box seats? Cautiously optimistic. The current boxes are delightful in their creaky, tiny, antique, uncomfortable way. I’d hate to see them completely re-designed, but increasing comfort while retaining their historical elements makes sense to me.

A new building at the top of the stretch has the potential to recall the old betting ring and field stand that stood there for decades. A fine idea in concept; its success will depend on the execution.

I am charmed by the description of the re-purposing of the saddling shed. If we’re not going to saddle horses in it, then why not drink Champagne under it? Allowing patrons access to this Saratoga landmark instead of restricting it to offices is a terrific idea.

The backstretch housing at Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows has clearly influenced the designs for Saratoga. Look, the people who work on the backstretch deserve the most comfortable, modern facilities that NYRA can afford. But the architectural models from Florida will look disastrous here. The designs make me uneasy, though I imagine that designing and constructing buildings that look like 19th century barns is just wildly impractical. Still…

I reserve the right to back off any and all of these opinions once I get back upstate to see the designs more closely and to talk to people at Saratoga. One thing, though, is pretty much certain: that Saratoga track guide I wrote this summer is going to need some serious revision.

My recent writing on this and related topics:

Saratoga keeps traditional feel even as it modernizes,” Daily Racing Form

Saratoga Race Course deserves respect, rehabilitation,” Saratogian

Roberts on Saratoga: ‘There’s none in the world like it,’” Brooklyn Backstretch

10 thoughts on “First thoughts on the new Saratoga

  1. Can’t see how 4% of VLT money will pay for _all_ this. Seems a little ambitious. Definitely agree that the architecture needs to be inline with the current landscape (unlike the shake shack). Better not cut one tree down. So the little summer boutique meet will be the major NYRA draw now. Don’t know why they feel the need to expand, don’t think it will boost the attendance especially since they seem to be courting the high-end clientele with these ‘improvements’. Specifically, I can’t picture the boxes at the top of the stairs. Those stairs are convenient if they allowed you to use them, and hanging boxes over the apron doesn’t seem aesthetically pleasing. The most interesting concept is what to do with the saddling shed. Of course NYRA’s misguided idea is to remove betting windows in place of champagne, that is just too funny. Maybe they will have the betting app by then(hmm…), but where are people supposed to bet when outside near the paddock. And they also seem to be pushing the picnickers further away from the track closer to Union Ave. to accommodate the high end clients. A lot of these “potential” improvements seem a bit of a dream and several years away. I don’t think turning Saratoga into Ascot or CD is the right strategy. But I totally agree all initial improvements coming from the first round of VLT money should go to the backstretch. We’ll see how it goes. In my lifetime this meet will start in June or early July for sure, especially if they put all this money into the infrastructure. And even more so agree that it’s unfair that you couldn’t be there to report and question NYRA at the public forum debate on this, that’s just wrong.

    • KOW, I read the designs differently than you did. There will still be betting windows in the saddling shed, at each end, according to the release, and I don’t think that the backyard is going to moved, just expanded. I may be wrong, but that’s how I read it.

      One thing Roberts said over and over is that any plans need to maintain/enhance the experience already have: meaning those who like the backyard should still have that, while those who prefer a more luxe experience should still have that.

  2. Ok, got it. Yes the saddling shed is a very large building so to turn the whole thing into a champagne bar seemed a bit odd. I think you are also right on expanding the backyard instead of moving, that was my misinterpretation, but it still puts more people away from the track. The more I think about this whole concept, is once the VLT money comes in will the projections still be the same. This is the crucial issue with the entire capital improvement plan. You never know how this will play out. 4% may actually end up being more money than first thought but then again other entities may just decide to take more of the percentage for purses, horseman, and especially nystate, etc… Personally I would do a full scale renovation and improvement of Belmont before I touched Saratoga. It seems like the MSG renovation is going to be way beyond what any casual fan imagined, if they put that type of thought into renovating Belmont that would serve them much better to attract fans since Saratoga will always draw people to it. Of the top of my head I can think of a dozen ways to improve Belmont. Seems like Breeder’s Cup 2012 is going to Santa Anita, lights at Belmont is one of them. Sabini will say there is an issue with running Belmont past 7pm, but I think he can amend that law for two days a year. Thanks for the reply and the corrections on the plan. Enjoy the final weekend.

  3. Yeah, that’s great! After the entire season’s advertising focus that kids can walk up to the jockeys and ask for autographs, let’s eliminate that possibility altogether!

    And let’s change the look and feel of the seating areas. Maybe we can make Saratoga as fan friendly as say Gulfstream?

    Hey here’s a great idea: Why not remove the main turf course and replace it with beach sand? It worked so well for Aqueduct, didn’t it?

    Please just bring back the Champagne (real French stuff) sellers and the Carvel stands and leave well enough alone.

  4. ML/NJ, where are you seeing changes to the look and feel of the seating areas? I didn’t see anything about that.

    The inner track at Aqueduct is, I believe, considered to be pretty successful (here’s a post I wrote about it) – what do you see as not working well about it?

    Much as I love the place, it’s looking mighty dingy in places, and in serious need of an upgrade. I’m hopeful that everyone involved will make the necessary and judicious changes, so that we all continue to love it.

  5. Where am I seeing changes to the look and feel of the seating areas? I guess you missed the Architect’s sketch above. (http://www.brooklynbackstretch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/At-The-Rail1-300×171.jpg)

    About the Inner Track, I could say more if you wish than I said when you wrote about it back in March 2010. Then you dismissed my comment with “Once people could bet without going to the racetrack, the days of 25,000 were numbered.” But, of course, Saratoga with a much smaller surrounding population has about doubled its average attendance since the Turf Course at the Big A was ripped out. In case you haven’t noticed, one can also bet on Saratoga without going to the racetrack, from my kitchen table 180 miles away even.

    Racing has to be beautiful. It is still beautiful at Saratoga and Keeneland, which is why these are the places where I see most of my live racing. Monmouth gets a hat tip too. Aqueduct used to be a pretty nice place with probably the best view of race possible. Now it’s an ugly place where a green vista is beyond an afterthought.

  6. I guess, ML, I don’t see the loss of the At The Rail pavilion in the same way that you do. I don’t quite view it as an architectural treasure, rather as something of an abomination. And based on these designs, that’s what’s going to be replaced, not the clubhouse or grandstand, so I say, good riddance!

    I guess we’ll also have to disagree about the causes of the decline in attendance at the track. As always, though, thanks for your comments, and thanks for responding.

  7. If you are sanguine about NYRA’s ability or inclination to do a classy, historicly appropriate renovation, take a stroll through the Jim Dandy bar & see what they have wrought. It might as well be an OTB in Voorheesville for all the character that remains.

    • Jane, while I’m not a fan of the new Jim Dandy bar, the new fences and the Paddock Bar are inspired, congenial, wonderful additions to the Spa. I hope that the promise of the new plans is carried out on the heels of those successes.

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