Monday, August 2, 2010

Off to the Races

The distinctive roof line of the Saratoga Race Track, the oldest race track in the country

Racing season in Saratoga: Yeah, I complain about traffic jams and attitudinous crowds pushing their way around town and in front of me in the supermarket line, but you know what? It's kind of fun. Saratoga is, after all, the oldest continuously running thoroughbred race track in the country, and it still exhibits a lot of that old-fashioned country-fair charm. I don't give a hoot about placing a bet, but I like to wander around the grounds, eyeballing the outrageous get-ups some people have on, admiring the horses, listening to music, and buying something disgustingly greasy to eat. The weather was nice today, not too hot, and I figured the crowds would be lighter on Monday than over the weekend, so I hopped on my bike and sailed over there to just look around. I even paid three bucks to enter the gates.

It may very well have been a lighter crowd than yesterday, but you couldn't tell by the looks of the picnic grounds.

I knew I was never going to find a place to sit down, so I headed right to the barbecue joint to fortify myself with the best pulled-pork sandwich I ever had.

A lively band was entertaining a crowd in front of the grandstand, so I stopped to bop along for a while, and then chat with the guy in the blue striped shirt. His name is Peter Davis, and he was responsible for turning two of my own kids into musicians, thanks to the music school he used to run here in Saratoga.

A wave of anticipation moved through the crowd as a parade of jockeys, dressed in their colorful "silks" that designate the stable of their mounts, made their way to the paddock to mount their horses for the next race. The bright colors enable the race announcer to tell who is who in the pack as they course along the far distant track. The announcer also needs to quickly forget that information and memorize a whole different set of silks for each race.

Young girls can be as crazy about jockeys as they are about horses. Here's a gaggle of them getting the autograph of one of their favorites.

One of the charms of the Saratoga track is the mix of members of every social class, from super-rich stable-owners to down-and-out desperate gamblers, and all sorts of folks in between. You can't always tell which is which, but clothing is often a clue.

So to which social class do these folks belong? All dressed in the kind of Victorian-era garb the first track-goers at Saratoga would have worn, they drew quite a few amused looks. (See the faces of those much-more-briefly attired girls on the left.)

The sound of the bugle calls the saddled and mounted horses from the paddock to the track. Many horse tracks have replaced the live bugler with recorded bugle calls, but tradition runs strong and deep at Saratoga.

The line-up of horses parades before the crowd before heading to the starting gate. At this point, each thoroughbred is accompanied by a "pony" such as this beautiful brown-and-white pinto. (The "ponies," usually more massive than the elegantly slender thoroughbreds, are used to help calm and control the often nervous racing horses.)

The fans get nervous, too. As the horses head onto the track, the crowd returns to the rail after placing their bets. It was fascinating to look down the rail at the many intent expressions -- and their marvelously varied headgear!

Speaking of headgear, ladies' fancy hats are de rigueur in the clubhouse area.

More casual attire is evident in the cheaper seats.

And they're OFF! Sorry I couldn't get a photo of the horses racing. They are, after all, the fastest animal afoot (for the distance), and they sped by in a blur too fast for my camera to catch. Here's a shot of the winner, though. He must have led the whole time, because he and his jockey are so clean. Horses that come from behind are usually covered with kicked-up dirt.

I wonder if this horse was a winner, too, because he is so clean, post-race.

I had left the track proper and biked around to the far side, where I stood near a rail to watch the horses slow down after passing the finish line. That way I stood a chance of actually getting a photo of one running. Well, I never learned if this horse won his race, but he certainly is a beauty.

Update: In the comments to this post, a commenter named Louise mentions a filly named Lisa's Booby Trap as having special meaning to her local community. I am happy to report that Lisa's Booby Trap did indeed win her race at Saratoga on Friday, August 6. There's an interesting story about this horse on the Albany Times Union's blog, "Saratoga Seen." You can find that blog by clicking here, turning the pages until you find the story "Filly fulfills a special role" by Christen Gowan.


Caroline said...

What a fun post! My parents took my 18 year old self to Saratoga on a return trip from NYC back in the late 60s. It was everything you describe! We bet on one race, just for fun and our horse came in dead last.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Hi Caroline, thanks for your comment. We moved to Saratoga in 1970 and so we've known this race track for 40 years. What's amazing is how little it seems to have changed.

Jens Zorn said...

Good fun to see these photos and to read your take on the goings-on. Am I correct in assuming that Saratoga does not yet have slot machines and poker machines as do so many of the tracks that are struggling for money?

Louise said...

One of Finger Lakes Finest is racing at Saratoga on Friday (not a common event as Finger Lakes is quite a step down from Saratoga.) Finger Lakes is the track that I do my volunteer work at.

Her name is Lisa's Booby Trap and she's running in the $70K Loudonville. This filly is named after the owner's late wife, who died of cancer in 2003. The owner isn't a rich guy, he's a Finger Lakes backsider, a really nice guy. It's a feel good story, all the way around. Google it, and you'll see.

So, keep your fingers crossed that this young outsider can make her mark!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Jens, good to hear from you. So far, the Saratoga thoroughbred track is free from other forms of gambling, although the local harness track is now a gambling den full of video terminals and old folks risking their pensions. But "pure" horse racing is probably on its way out. The two other NY thoroughbred tracks -- Aquaduct and Belmont -- are failing badly and will not survive unless they also become crappy casinos. I wouldn't give a hoot about that, but if those two tracks fail, so will Saratoga. The city of Saratoga Springs and all its hotels, restaurants, and retail outlets would certainly mourn that loss!

Louise, I'm rooting for Lisa's Booby Trap. (Don't you just love the names folks give racehorses?) She just might surprise everyone, as did Funnycide, a locally-bred horse that showed up the best a few years ago. The Saratoga track is known as "the graveyard of champions" because of the history of underdogs beating out sure things. Remember when Onion trounced Secretariat?

Virginia said...

What fun to look at the track from a "fashion perspective!" Leave it to you to get photographs that tell the story with a different spin.