America’s favorite racetrack, but what makes Saratoga so great? | Topics: NYRA, Donna Barton Brothers, Saratoga, Saratoga Springs
Ahead of the annual summer meet in Saratoga, Steve Dennis takes a look at what makes all the fuss when it comes to America’s most beloved racing venue
Horse racing often seems to be a sport built on disagreement, echoing Mark Twain’s aphorism that it’s difference of opinion that makes horse racing.
It’s not just the races that provide fertile ground for differing opinions, but seemingly everything – funding, whipping, governance, drugs, timing, a thousand and one areas of contention in a sport and an industry that often find themselves embroiled to an uncivil war. between its various factions.
Except on one point. It seems to be a universally recognized truth that Saratoga is the best racetrack in the United States, a little piece of nirvana that seduces the head and the heart, the soul and the spirit, just a racetrack in the upstate of New York with a 40-day meeting every summer but much more than that to all those who fall under its spell. It even permeates the national consciousness; everyone knows the vain lover of Carly Simon who rode at Saratoga, where his horse naturally won.
What’s it about Saratoga that makes her so elated, so elated? The question hangs in the gentle summer breeze, and the answer comes back like a cry of joy. All.
“Over the years it has retained all of its charm,” says Steve Haskin, daisy-chain racing writer and former senior correspondent for The Blood Horse. “It’s like a world apart, a state of mind that gives us the impression that time has stopped. Even though Saratoga has changed, it has really changed very little.
Grateful smiles are exchanged. “A big part of Saratoga’s appeal is the old-world atmosphere, and the quality of racing is as good as it gets,” adds award-winning national correspondent Jay Privman. Daily race form. “And since it’s a boutique meeting, only for a short time, there’s an added incentive to go.”
“Yes, the historical significance and the traditions maintained, but also the social aspect. Saratoga feels like a class reunion every summer,” says Donna Barton Brothers, NBC Sports host and highly successful former jockey.
It strikes a chord with Dan De Federicis, founder and editor of the Saratoga Report news site, evangelist of the many delights of his hometown. “The track and the city are more closely linked than any other track I know. In summer there is a real energy in the place, there is nothing like it elsewhere.
Saratoga ticks all the boxes, efficiently, effortlessly. The history of the place, unmissable for first-time visitors and regulars alike, the annual immersion in this warm bath of nostalgia, is the recurring melody of its siren song. Moving on to Michael Veitch, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame historian who stands like a Valhalla right in front of the racetrack itself.
“It is generally accepted that the Saratoga racetrack is one of the oldest existing tracks in the United States, with racing beginning at its current site in 1864,” he says. “Yet even before that, in the 1840s, there were trotting races at Saratoga Springs, and the first recorded Thoroughbred flat race that we know of was held at this trotting course on September 16, 1847.
“Many visitors feel this history. And the grounds at the track, for the most part, are undoubtedly beautiful, although some old-time patrons resent the commercialism that has become part of the annual meeting.
The same goes for oldies everywhere, but despite the fact that Saratoga Springs is in many ways a typical modern town, it retains an old-world small-town charm that complements the racetrack’s woodland setting – no doubt gorgeous, as Veitch attests – within walking distance of downtown.
For most of the year, it’s a sleepy old spa town – located about 200 miles north of New York City, the city that never sleeps – but between mid-July and early September, it s animates as an annual brigadoon. That brilliance, snap and crunch, is another essential part of Saratoga’s appeal.
“After a day of running, unlike in, say, Del Mar, where people spread out across the many towns in the area, in Saratoga everyone goes to the same town for dinner,” says Barton Brothers.
“I think that’s one of the things that makes fans appreciate it so much, because when they go out for dinner or a drink, they’re very likely to run into jockeys or trainers that they don’t know. ‘ve only seen from afar on the track.. It also makes those involved in the race appreciate it more, as you are sure to meet people you know.
“My husband and I go out to dinner with friends far more often during the Saratoga meet than at any other time of the year. I think that’s how it is for so many people.
Everyone feels welcome, invited to an exclusive shindig. “It’s all ages on the track and in the city,” adds De Federicis. “It’s a racetrack that kids are happy to visit, a town where everyone from 20 to 60 feels like they fit in, belong in Saratoga.”
The exclusivity, the inclusivity, the conviviality of the garden party of Saratoga Springs in the summer, the real world held at bay somewhere beyond the highway, all along the Hudson River, reinforces the particularity that springs directly from the racetrack. There, this particularity is renewed daily by undoubtedly the most concentrated offer of quality sport in the world of racing.
“Winning a race in Saratoga is even more special today than it was half a century ago when I first visited the place,” Haskin said. “Here, the thoroughbred still reigns supreme.”
This year there are 77 stakes races over the 40 days of the meeting, with at least one stake each day and a relentless blizzard of G1 races that includes big events such as the showpiece Travers Stakes, known as of ‘Midsummer Derby’, the Whitney Stakes and now even the Jockey Club Gold Cup, moved last year (not without controversy) to close out the weekend from their traditional home of Belmont Park.
Many of the most prestigious races are named after heroes of old, the Forego, the Fourstardave, the Personal Ensign, the Shuvee, the Spinaway, the Sword Dancer, and these horses would all recognize their own private Saratoga because here the march of modernity was widely resisted. As Privman says, “The track has done a wonderful job over the past few years marrying the new with the old, but I think the nostalgia factor can’t be overstated.”
Saratoga is the Field of Dreams of racing, its aura, its charisma as powerful as the water from the Spa gushing from the ground through a fountain in the picnic area. The main grandstand is wood-framed and rustic, the red and white striped awnings and banners are pure 1950s Americana, plenty of amenities and facilities have seen many summers come and go, and in all that time the horses patrol the tree line parade through areas of light and shadow as Sam The Bugler – Sam Grossman, who will sadly be absent this year for the first time since 1993 due to health issues – clears his head throat to play the traditional Call To Post.
Some days, of course, the racetrack is dark, and even then Saratoga has plenty to offer. A visit to the National Museum of Racing, where each August new Hall of Famers take their place in a ceremony that – like Saratoga itself – enrichingly blends past and present, is strictlybut the list of other options is long.
“Walking down the main thoroughfare of Broadway, watching the morning chores on the back, attending the yearling sale, boating on Lake Saratoga, and strolling through historic Congress Park all awaken the senses,” Haskin says.
The deal, as always with Saratoga, is easy to get. “When you add the summer weather to the equation, it’s a great place to spend a day, a week, or the whole competition,” says Privman. Or a lifetime. “My first date with the woman who became my wife was at the races in Saratoga,” smiles De Federicis. “It’s the most wonderful place.”
On the Oklahoma training track, among the rustic/archaic barns (take your pick), all part of the considerable and enduring charm, practice rider Sean Duffy added his voice to the many. “Saratoga is the best. The best atmosphere, the best race, it’s the top, the cream of the crop.
The spirit of Saratoga remains with you, within you, long after summer is over. “Just talking about Saratoga makes me happy,” Barton Brothers says. And you won’t find anyone to disagree with that.
• Visit the NYRA Saratoga website
Charles Hayward: Good things happen at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Like father, like son: Riley Mott set to launch his own training career
What they think: Jenine Sahadi – We must stop lying and hypocrisy
See the latest TRC World Rankings for Horses / Jockeys / Trainers / Bulls