Though Saratoga is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, for people that have been to the track, they have their own anniversary with the track (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
Throughout the course of 40 wondrous days this summer, the 150th anniversary of Saratoga Race Course will be celebrated in a grand manner.
Yet if you’re a passionate fan of Thoroughbred racing, it’s not the totality of Saratoga that matters most. Even if racing started in Saratoga Springs when the Civil War was raging, it’s not a date in 1863 that starts the flow of sweet memories for some of us who have a deep love for the Spa.
Rather it’s that personal anniversary when it all began for you. Like a first kiss, first love or birth of a first child, memories of that first day at Saratoga never leave a devoted fan.
For me, it was 39 years ago. To be precise, it was Aug. 23, 1974, a date that can be rattled off quickly because of a program from that day that still has a place on my basement desk. It’s part of a pile from major races over the course of years that have flown by too fast.
BOB EHALT'S PROGRAM FROM THAT DAY
It was the 23rd day in a 24-day meet, which reflects at least one of the differences between then and the current 40-day meet that has become so fabulously popular.
As laughably as the notion might seem today, in 1974 Saratoga was the weak link among New York Racing Association tracks. The rebuilt Belmont Park was only six years old and the two city tracks attracted larger crowds than the upstate boutique meet. There was, as blasphemous as it may seem, some brief chatter about scrapping Saratoga because of the logistical costs inherent in such a short meet
In NYRA’s annual schedule, Saratoga was open almost exclusively in August then as Belmont would close before July 4th and a month-long meet was held at Aqueduct before the scene shifted upstate to Saratoga.
With Off-Track Betting entering the scene a few years earlier, in 1974 the reasons for journeying north were diminishing in some people’s eyes. Why should someone drive 2 or 3 hours to visit a racetrack when you could drive 10 minutes to an OTB?
Those were my thoughts until Aug. 24, 1974.
As it would be a few more years until I could convince a few of my friends to embrace the joys in watching horses race against each other, my inaugural trip to Saratoga was made with my parents, my Uncle Charlie, and Aunt Rose.
Uncle Charlie was the successful businessman in the family and owned a few race horses at the time. He suggested the trip a few months earlier at a family function and he handled the driving for the five of us.
When his car turned off the highway and onto Route 9 in Saratoga Springs, the initial thought from this teenaged city kid was that we had driven three hours to arrive in Green Acres - and not the shopping mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. All that was missing was Arnold the Pig, though I figured we bump into him and Mr. Douglas before too long.
Those thoughts started to fade when we reached our downtown hotel. There was indeed civilization in this part of the world and what stuck out were all of the reminders that horse racing was happening in town. I was surprised to see that our hotel sold copies of the Daily Racing Form.
It was completely surprising because I had spent my first 16 years living about 300 yards from one of Belmont Park’s parking lots and the only real vestiges of a racetrack in our neighborhood were the traffic jams after the final few races.
Life in Queens Village, N.Y. spun in the opposite direction of Belmont Park, yet here in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., life revolved around the racetrack, and as someone who was developing a growing appreciation of the sport, it was a blast to see.
Less than hour later, we arrived at the racetrack and, with all of the tall trees on the grounds, it was like driving into a woodsy park.
The racetrack was old in terms of age, but had a charm to it, much like the original Yankee Stadium. Like “The House That Ruth Built,” you could sense the history all around you. Nothing seemed old and rickety, even if it was a more than a century old. It was like taking a trip back in time.
The crowd, though small, was festive, with a larger concentration of families than you’d see at the Big Apple tracks.
As we rode an elevator in the clubhouse, I learned an important lesson about life at the racetrack. My uncle was a pretty good tipper and when the elevator attendant saw him, he gave him a tip on a horse in the first race. My uncle in turn gave him $20. Though I didn’t like the horse, I was delighted to have some inside information and pondered how to use the horse in the daily double. When we arrived at the dining area, the maitre d’ gave him a different horse and my uncle reached into his pocket again. Next the waiter gave him a horse, and the wallet opened once more.
With five minutes to post, Uncle Charlie had tips on six horses in a field of nine – and none of them won.
So much for inside information.
As much as some might believe claiming races are a new fad at Saratoga, there were four of them on a nine-race card along with a steeplechase race, which was a new experience for me to watch (in a sign of how little some things change, Jonathan Sheppard was the leading trainer back then).
I quickly became a fan of the paddock, which was larger than the ones at Belmont and Aqueduct, and offered a unique scene with the horses saddled under tall, shady trees.
What also stood out was how close we were to the track. As much as I loved the third deck of the grandstand at Belmont, with its cement and steel, sitting in this old, wooden track at Saratoga presented a much better view of the action.
And one race in particular was absolutely memorable to watch. It was the 83rd running of the Spinaway Stakes and a 2-year-old filly named Ruffian displayed her greatness, winning by 12 ¾ lengths in her final race of 1974.
THE PAGE FOR THAT YEAR'S SPINAWAY
At dinner in town that night, I could hear people around us talking about racing, another cultural shock. Many times my family had gone to Luna’s, the Italian restaurant across the street from Belmont Park, and the conversations around us would center on topics like the Mets, Yankees or how much they hated Mayor John Lindsay. Racing was wasn’t on menu.
We returned the next day and the crowd, much like the day before, was much smaller than a visitor will find during a weekend day in Year No. 150.
Exotic wagering was limited in those days (there was just one daily double and wagering on it ended 10 minutes before post time for the first race), but my enjoyment of these new surroundings was enhanced when I used a $12 play to hit a $220 double – which my father and uncle also hit. I had to sweat out an unusual inquiry to have my dad cash that ticket for me – the runner-up in the second race claimed foul against my 20- 1 winner but he was the one who was ultimately taken down. But the payoff was very sweet at a time when I was a few weeks shy of having to pay $2,500 for my freshman year tuition at college.
I didn’t wager much after that, but I did get to see The Bagel Prince and Foolish Pleasure win split divisions of the Hopeful.
Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure in the same weekend; not bad, not bad at all.
Driving home that night, there was ample time to reflect on this all-too-brief trip and become more fascinated by it. I had been to racetracks before and watched Secretariat complete a Triple Crown sweep, but this was an experience that satisfying on so many levels.
It was like a festival of racing, where the sport reigned supreme both within and outside the gates of the track.
And perhaps because so much of my life had been centered on the intersecting streets and avenues of one of the world’s biggest cities, the Victorian serenity of the track and the surrounding community was a delightful escape.
For a variety of reasons, it took me four years to return to Saratoga. The crowds were larger then and the phenomenon that made it so immensely popular was starting to build.
Since that 1978 trip – when I saw my star-crossed favorite horse, Alydar, win the Whitney - there have been only a handful years in which I failed to spend at least a day at Saratoga. Some people had Spring Break in Florida; my vacation was Saratoga in August – and in later years July and September as well – and not once did the Spa disappoint.
It’s been that way for generations of fans for 150 years now, though for me it’s the last 39 that matter most.