The time has come, and yes, that song is usually reserved for Christmas time, and recently in back-to-school commercials, but the best time of the year is here, and that time of course is Saratoga time.
This year is a special year at the “flat track” because it marks the 150th year of racing at legendary Saratoga. Because of this, there will be many special celebrations to mark this special occasion. NYRA is hoping to top the 1 million mark in attendance this year, and if the weather cooperates and the big stars come, it could happen.
As we know horse racing is an event sport, and the sport still can do the big event as good as any other sport in the business. The Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup are indicators of this; the sport does well when it’s on the big stage. The Preakness is probably the best example of how this happens. Horse racing goes virtually unnoticed in Baltimore, but the Preakness draws near, the marketing begins and on that third Saturday in May, there’s 115,000 fans at Pimlico–the second oldest track behind Saratoga–which shows that the sport can still rise to the occasion and get the public to buy in.
Speaking of the public, one can tire of those who say that America has changed, it’s not the same, we’ve lost our values and so on and so forth. That’s debatable to be sure, and this is not the forum to do it, but there is a certain truth in this country, one that can’t be debated: Americans like to be Americans.
Traditions are still a big part of this country. We like big events, we like the big holidays, we like the big show. I visited my hometown last week for Independence Day and was amazed at how many people lined the streets for the annual parade and even more amazed at how many people showed up after at the VFW to have a drink and catch up with old friends. Americans like a good party and they like a good event, and Saratoga is a great event.
Saratoga is an American event. It’s a place where people meet to reacquaint. It’s a place where the college buddies get together for a summer party before heading back for the fall semester. It’s a place where people bring their children even if the kids don’t want to go, to expose them to the tradition. And, those kids will eventually do the same and hear it from their kids. It’s a place to Run for the Tables on Travers Day, where people line up at 3 am to secure the chance to get that precious picnic table At 7 am, the gates open, and the tricky 500 yard run, the 500 yard quest begins.
Every track has big events. Aqueduct has the Wood Memorial, and on a good day, they may get 10,000 admissions. Belmont has great racing, and on a good day they might get 10,000 admissions. But, Saratoga is Saratoga and on an less than average day (generally Monday), they’ll get 14,000 admissions. The summer, the great marketing by NYRA, the 40 day meet, and of course the horses contribute to it but Saratoga is a throwback to tradition, and as mentioned above, Americans like traditions.
The racing at Saratoga is second-to-none, the best there is with the best trainers, best jockeys and most of the time, the best horses. The town is small and charming and the above mentioned people want to be here and certainly enjoy it here. Another reason why Saratoga works is that the Greater Albany region has no professional sports teams, meaning that there are no distractions. This isn’t New York with the Giants, Jets, Mets and Yankees clogging the headlines and it’s not Boston with the Pats and Red Sox. Even local newspapers love it, because their coverage means more papers sold as well as more advertising.
The racing is great and that’s a credit to NYRA. They offer tons of stakes races and they dive right in; there’s no waiting to the end of the meet to see big races. Just look at the first weekend with the Coaching Club American Oaks, the second weekend with the Jim Dandy and the Diana, races with purses of $300,000, and $600,000 respectively. That is major league money for major league races. Other tracks have big races, but many of them offer purses of $100,000 to $200,000 and call that “big.” Every stakes race at Saratoga–even ungraded ones–has at least a $100,000 purse. And, my rule of thumb has always been that a race with at least a $100,000 purse deserves your attention. And, don’t forget Tom Durkin, the best race caller in the business–and ask yourself, can it get any better?
So there it is. Saratoga has something for everyone. The diehard racing fans love it, the people watchers love it, the singles love it, the couples love it, the families love it, the fashion people love it, those who like fine dining love it. You can watch every race or not one second of one and still love it.
The Saratoga Race Course: a special time, a special place.