You may not know it, but we are–right this moment–smack dab in the middle of the most glorious time of year. Well, if you happen to be in Saratoga Springs, New York, that is.
That time of year is track season, the 46 days between the end of July and Labor Day during which the Saratoga Race Course, our thoroughbred horse racing track, is open.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Tracks are skeezy. Only old people with gambling problems go to horse tracks. Or rich people once a year for the Kentucky Derby. For the love of god, why would a respectable young person with no noticeable addictions to support go to a horse racing track?” It’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? I know, horse tracks have a really bad rap, and rightfully so; a lot of them are still skeezy as shit.
But not Saratoga. Saratoga is different. For one, Saratoga Race Course is the oldest continuously operating sports venue in the country. It’s older than Churchill Downs, it’s older than Wrigley–for fuck’s sake, the Civil War was only two years deep when it opened. But Saratoga is also is a destination for both the racing world and tourists alike that people from all over the country come to experience the track. It’s a place where families come to gather and relax and no one thinks twice about bringing their kids. It’s a wonderful medley of history and beauty and food and glamour and horses and fun.
And it’s easily my favorite place to be in the summer.
A day at the track can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some people, it means wearing fancy dresses with elaborate hats and linen suits, sitting in your own private owners box, and walking to the paddock (and hopefully winners circle) to be with your horse. It’s mingling with other horse owners, wealthy elite, and celebrities. (Or in the case of Bobby Flay, all three.) For others, it means drinks in the clubhouse, with its upscale bars and restaurants and dress code. It’s about seeing and being seen.
Of course, those experiences aren’t for everyone. Me? I prefer to experience my track from the backyard.
The backyard is the grassy, treed area surrounding the grandstand. You can’t actually see the track from there, but they do walk the horses right through the backyard on their way to the paddock, and a two minute walk gets you right to the rail, the winners circle, or the paddock if you so fancy.
Plus tv monitors scattered about the grounds give you a nice up-close view of the race. (My favorite? The three in the playground area. Because even the young’uns like to see if their boxed exacta came in.) You can bring any food or beverages you like, as long as they’re not in glass, which means that people like Kyle and I can bring a cooler-backpack full of beer and forego the $13 persecco-and-orange-juice or even the $8 beers. A popular spot for reunions of both the familial and scholastic variety, people bring flags and banners to nail to the trees or hang from the roof of their pop-up tents, and friends and families gather with amounts of food and booze that might feel more appropriate at say, Thanksgiving. And there’s hundreds and hundreds of picnic tables that are available for use, as long as you get there early enough to claim one.
Which is why a day at the track for us begins at 6am.
That’s right, you heard me. Six. A. M.
See, despite the hundreds and hundreds of picnic tables available, there with be thousands and thousands of people coming to the track. Average attendance on any given day is almost 30,000 people, and at least half of them also want a table. So “early enough to claim one” means you best be in line at 7am when the gates open. You can get away with showing up right at 7a on a Monday, maybe on a day that’s shaping up to be rainy, but on a Saturday or Sunday? Not a chance.
Which is why our day begins at 6am.
Wake up, throw on clothes and brush our teeth, and we can be at the track by 6:30a. Stand in line for half an hour or so, and when the gates open at 7a, we run for our table.
Back before last year, this literally meant running for your spot. See, at 6:50a they used to open the first set of gates, at which point the line would compact into more of a crowd. If you were good, you could start weaseling your way through that crowd until you were at the front, right behind the second gate. And let me tell you, Kyle and I were good. To the frequent dismay of the people at the head of the line who’d showed up hours ago to claim their spot, we could usually–by traveling light and being willing to invade peoples’ personal space–thread our way through the crowd until we were close to the front.
And when the gates would open? Baby, it was fucking pandemonium. The entire crowd would surge forward, compressing you into the person in front of you. Someone usually knocked over the garbage can right at the gate, trapping those immediately behind them and forcing everyone else to leap over it. And once we were through the gate we would full-on sprint to our chosen spot, claiming our table as quickly as we could by leaping on top of it because to hesitate for more than a moment was to come up empty-handed. It was wild and chaotic and frankly, kinda dangerous; at least once a year someone would be injured in the fray, and more than once we walked away with interestingly shaped bruises.
They don’t let us run for tables like that anymore; now they keep the line between barriers, forcing it to stay a line, and they yell at you if you run through the backyard. It’s safer, civilized, and from a liability standpoint, an overall better idea than the chaos…and Kyle and I miss the shit out of that chaos. We loved it because…well, let’s just say that during the summer, this town is more than happy to cater to the wealthy tourist. Money can buy you entry into an entire world that Kyle and I will never be able to touch. But money can’t buy you a table in the backyard. For once, the system didn’t reward the wealthy tourist, but the cunning, the bold, the quick, and–most inportantly–the local who knew how to play the game. And sure, running through the melee often left us with banged up shins and entirely too close in proximity to our fellow human. But when I leapt up on my table and surveyed the area, I felt like I’d earned my table. Now, we have to rely on our prior knowledge of where the good spots are and where security isn’t (and thus, able to get away with a few jogged strides) to give us the upper hand. We still do just fine and always manage to snag a table or two in our chosen area.
It’s just…you know…less fun.
Once we’ve chosen our tables in the backyard, we arrange them to best stay in the shade later in the day, claim them by clamping down a tablecloth, and then we go home.
That’s right. We go home.
A long-standing tradition at Saratoga is the honor system pertaining to personal property, but particularly picnic tables. If you’ve claimed your table at 7am in a visible way, no one will take it. I’ve seen people leave as little as a newspaper folded on their table and it will sit untouched for hours, but a tablecloth of some variety usually does a better job. So once we’ve clamped down our tablecloth, we’re free to leave and go home for a nice breakfast, a run, or a nap (usually a nap,) knowing that it will be waiting for us when we get back.
Our day at the track resumes a few hours later.
By then, we’ve completed the reinvigorating activities of our choosing, showered and cleaned up, and are heading back to the track to make it in time for the first race at 1pm. Armed with some variety of lunch (subs from Roma are by far the tastiest choice) and a cooler full of beers, we usually make it back to our waiting table in time to look over the past performances of each horse in the first race and decide on our first bet.
After that, the day settles itself into an easy rhythm. There’s a race about every 30 minutes or so, providing two minutes of absolute bedlam, with plenty of run up in between to study the horses and decide on our bets. Kyle and I usually bet no more than $3 or $4 each race, and they’re usually based on a combination of the horse’s past performances, the jockey, and the trainer. Once in a while I’ll bet $1 on a horse with a funny name, which almost never win but are fun to cheer for. (Past favorites? Horses named Professor Chaos, Not Fake News, and Funky Monkey Mamma.) We never bet big which means that we almost never win big (I think our record is something like $65,) but that’s okay with us. We don’t bet to make money, we just bet to have fun. Our goal for each day is to make back what we spent plus $7 for a Shake Shack Sloppy Track milkshake.
But the betting and the races aren’t really why we go to the track. The races only take a minute or two; we go for the bits around all that, when it’s sunshine and blue skies and relaxing in the shade of the giant trees of the backyard. Sometimes it’s just Kyle and I, and we’ll talk and read the paper and enjoy a lazy day outdoors. But my favorite track days are the ones when we have friends and family with us, and the more the better. On those days, everyone brings snacks to share as we talk and joke and argue about horses and laugh. Sometimes we all go to the rail to watch the race as the horses fly by, but often we just sit around our table and have a blast. Those are my favorite track days, because it brings together all my favorite people for an easy day of relaxation; anyone who wants to show up does with whatever food and drink they want and there’s no pressure to do anything but enjoy each other’s company.
Some of my favorite days–the ones that I look back upon and smile–have been with our friends and family at the track.
Racing usually goes until 6p or so, at which point we pack up and head for home. Sometimes that’s the end of it; we all go to our respective homes, make our respective dinners, and watch our respective tvs before going to bed. Especially if it’s a Sunday or a Monday, a day of drinking in the sun is enough to wipe a person out. More than once, however, we’ve been having such a great time with all of our friends that we’ve all gone out to dinner afterwards. And a real track day–a throw-down, things-are-fucking-serious, hang-on-to-your-tits track day–doesn’t stop there. On a weekend we’ll go home, nap (again) and sober up, eat some dinner, and head back out for a night of bar hopping and partying. Saratoga’s nightlife is at its best and grandest during track season, and to not partake in the scene is to miss out. The energy downtown is absolutely unreal, and even though we’ve usually been up since 6a at that point, it’s hard not to let yourself get swept up in it.
Track season is only about six weeks, which, if I’m being honest with myself, is probably for the better; by the time the season ends I usually feel like my liver is getting ready to slide out of my body, I’m drinking detox tea like it’s the last liquid on Earth, and the sight of a beer makes me go pale. The entire city of Saratoga Springs goes through a metaphorical hangover, during which the locals take the town back from the tourists (at least until the leafers come…) and everything is quieter. But at the same time, its relatively short duration is part of what makes track season so magical. Because it’s so short, there’s almost a frenzy to take in as much of it as possible, to soak in every moment we can before it’s gone. The house goes a little uncleaned, laundry lapses momentarily…shit, even taking the time to write this post was difficult, because it’s track season. There’s horses to be examined, races to bet upon, sunshine to soak in, beers to drink, and the company of wonderful people in which to bask.