Every year, when I arrive at Saratoga Springs for the races, a feeling comes over me as I journey the final miles north on I-87 to Exit 14. Famed sportswriter Red Smith wrote about the trip from New York City, “Drive north 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years in time.” It’s the perfect description of the Spa: a place that’s timeless, with the hospitality, charm and ambiance of a bygone era that’s infused by a vibrant energy that keeps the town and track firmly in the modern era.
I got to Spa City on Friday at mid-afternoon, and after dumping my ridiculous amounts of luggage at my parents’ rental place (where, hilariously, I stay in their basement and am on the computer all of the time. I am not making that up. It’s such a cliché.) I grabbed my big bag o’ technology and boogied over to the racetrack to catch the last few races of the day. I was so glad I did – arriving at this track for the first time feels like I’m coming home. I’ve had the incredible fortune to visit Saratoga nearly every year of my life, and once you experience the place for yourself you’ll know why there are so many of us who make a point to come back as often as possible.
After thoroughly enjoying a Friday afternoon of racing, I headed back to my parents’ place to get some work done and hang out with my family and my oldest friends. It was a great night, and part of what makes Saratoga so wonderful – the way that it brings horse racing fans from across the nation to one town to experience some of the best racing in the world.
I actually ended up sleeping in yesterday morning (a very rare occurrence for me) and then grabbed an early lunch with my family before heading over to the races. When I finally arrived at the track it was an absolutely glorious day, and a huge crowd had shown up to celebrate the track’ 150th anniversary.
People were dressed to the nines for the occasion, with hats both fabulous and flamboyant in abundance.
There were also a bunch of bachelor parties in attendance. These guys were having a blast, and were kind enough to pose for a photo with me. In case it’s too hard to read, their t-shirts say “A Stallion’s Last Ride” – pretty fantastic! Congratulations to the lucky groom-to-be!
I also spotted actress Susan Lucci in attendance. She’s best known as starring in “All My Children,” and she was super glamorous and looks exactly the same as she did when the show first went on the air.
Sam the Bugler was also in the house; he’s the guy that plays the “Call to the Post” as the horses come onto the track before each race. He’s incredibly friendly and outgoing, and if you ever run into him at the races he’ll be happy to play you a tune and stay for a chat.
There were also lots of artists in the paddock, painting the iconic sights of the Spa. This gentleman is a really interesting guy – he used to gallop horses in the mornings to train them, and then would paint in the afternoons. While he no longer rides, he clearly has a major artistic talent, and it was a pleasure to see his work.
Of course, the thing that has defined Saratoga for the last 150 years are the horses, and the people who come here to be near them. And to be there for the track’s sesquicentennial on such a picture-perfect day was a landmark moment that I was proud to be a part of.
Speaking of picture-perfect moments, I ran into a friend of mine that I haven’t seen since the Kentucky Derby – the awesome and talented Nicole Russo – who you should totally follow on Twitter if you like funny people and horse racing. I immediately commissioned another friend of mine, a professional photographer, to snap our photo on the racetrack because, frankly, standing on the racetrack is really fun and makes me feel super cool and I want as many photos of it as possible.
Yeah, nice hair, Penelope. I look like I spent the morning tickling electrical sockets.
One of the biggest charms of the day was the commemorative cake made by the folks from “Cake Boss.” Check this action out:
That right there is just a carbohydrate bonanza, and it smelled so freaking good that it required all of my restraint to not just plunge both of my hands in the middle of that bad boy and go full toddler-at-her-second-birthday on it. But that would be undignified and possibly get my press credentials revoked, so I exercised good judgment and just dreamed of digging into the cake. Which, by the way, weighed a whopping 300 pounds! It was truly massive; after the cake cutting ceremony, it took six burly men to lift it into the track to have it taken out of the Winner’s Circle.
The great thing was that the giant cake was destined for a good cause: it would be taken to the backstretch (where the horses live when they’re not racing) and be divvied up among the many workers there. These men and women work unbelievable hours, sometimes seven days a week, to take care of the animals in the center of this sport, and it’s great to see a racetrack that reaches out and finds ways to say thank you to them.
Speaking of the horses, at this point it was time for the afternoon’s stakes races! These are the upper levels of horse racing in which the best horses, riders and jockeys compete for large amount of money – in other words, it’s a ton of fun!
The first stakes race of the afternoon was the De La Rose, a contest for female horses three years old and older travelling one mile over the grass. It was a tough race, with eight fillies and mares prepared to go head-to-head for the $100,000 pot. As the starting gate opened, the #4 horse, a 23-1 longshot named Assateague tripped and lost precious seconds getting herself straightened out. Here’s what it looked like:
Normally that kind of incidence can lose the race for a horse; at Saratoga, where the competition is fiercer than most racetracks, it’s pretty much an insurmountable obstacle. But little Assateague didn’t get that memo, nor was she aware that most people hadn’t bet on her. So she went ahead and ignored her bad start and her longshot status and just decided to win the race. She seems like a very brave, determined horse and I’m very excited to see where she goes next!
Then it was time for the main event: the Whitney Invitational Handicap. This is a race that pits the best older horses in the country against one another over a mile and an eight on the dirt. It’s a big prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the Whitney generally attracts the most talented horses in the country for its $750,000 purse.
I headed out to the paddock to watch the horses prepare for the race. The place was a zoo, with what seemed like half of the Clubhouse crowded in the enclosure to catch a glimpse of these beautiful animals and their connections. As the horses arrived, fans lined the walkway evaluate the horses’ looks and to pick their favorite.
After the horses were saddled and the jockeys had received their instructions from the trainers, it was time for the Whitney! Marylou Whitney, the philanthropist and social center of Saratoga, was in the paddock waiting to present the trophy to the winning connections.
I so wish I could wear lemon yellow – I think she looks so chic and stylish.
Then it was race time! There really isn’t anything like the roar of a giant crowd as the gates open for a big race – it’s goosebump-inducing and I hope everyone gets to experience that thrill at least once in their lives.
It was a hotly contested race – one that makes me extremely excited for the rest of the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic – and when the horses hit the finish line it was Cross Traffic who was the hero of the day.
As Cross Traffic returned to the Winner’s Circle, his owners and connections were thrilled. The Whitney is one of the most sought-after victories in horse racing, and it was great to see so many people crowded in the Winner’s Circle to celebrate the win.
Cross Traffic also looked quite spiffy decked out in his blanket of flowers, which are roses grown and named for Marylou Whitney.
It was a perfect ending to a fantastic day, and I can’t wait to share more of my Saratoga adventures with you as they unravel over the next week. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap of Sunday’s action from the Spa!