The time to arrive at the race track in Saratoga, N.Y., is 7 a.m. Actual racing won’t commence until 1 in the afternoon, but at 7 you can enjoy a blueberry muffin, strawberries, and coffee beside the track as long-time commentator Mary Ryan describes the passing show…which is horses.
After breakfast in the cool of the recent morning when I visited Saratoga for the first time in almost 20 years, I left the track, crossed the street, and found myself in the barn area with the horses that had just worked. There I encountered a fellow who’d been motoring between the barns in a golf cart. It turned out he had considerable experience at the races.
“I’m 84 years old, and I’ve been training horses for a long time, and I’ve been to Saratoga since I was 17. Not every year, but that was the first time I came here,” Allen Jerkens said.
Jerkens seemed to me as good a source as any and better than most for an appreciation of the nation’s oldest race track. But handed the opportunity to celebrate the place, he all but fumbled it away.
“Well, it’s supposed to be the biggest and most well thought of race track in the country for a long time,” he said. “People like to come here, and if they can win here, they think they’ve won at the biggest race track in the world.”
This summer’s meet, which concludes this weekend, marks the 150th running at Saratoga. That wasn’t a big deal for Jerkens, who told me he came to work early each morning pretty much the same way he’d done during Saratoga’s 149th summer and the 148th before that. But turf writer Teresa Genaro corrected for the trainer’s understatement.
“I think it matters because there’s no sport in this country that is as old as this,” said Genaro, who authors the racing website Brooklyn Backstretch. “And there’s no sporting facility of any kind that is as old as this, although the current race track only dates to 1864, not 1863. This track exists because of the success of the four-day racing meet in 1863. Four days, two races a day. Approximately 10,000 people turned out.”
“These were match races, no?” I asked.
“They were,” she said. “There were not the big fields that people are accustomed to seeing today. There was also only wagering of an informal sort. There were also longer races than people are used to. The first race actually consisted of three one-mile heats.”
“So endurance mattered,” I said.
“Endurance mattered,” she said. “And the horses that raced on that first day came back and raced before the meet was over.”
The horses are better-rested now, and racing has changed in lots of other ways. Elsewhere, it’s endangered. Hollywood Park, which began operations in 1938, will close in December. But much of what charmed people at Saratoga 50 and 60 and 100 years ago remains.
“And I think that’s why people come back here year after year,” Genaro said. “I mean, the clubhouse that sits there has been there for 100 years. And when you look up in the rafters, you’re looking at the same rafters that people looked at when they came to see Man O’ War, who raced here in 1919, had his only loss here. I think there’s a lot of bad news about horse racing. There’s bad news about the financing of it, but I think when you step on the grounds at Saratoga, I think you still get to see the best of the sport, and that’s why it’s probably the most popular racing meet in the country.”
Vin Wendel, picnicking an hour before the first race on that mid-August day, saw no reason to dispute Genaro’s chronicle of the charms of Saratoga.
“Well, you know, since I’ve been coming here things seem really, really similar,” Wendel said. “They’ve certainly added some vending and that sort of stuff, but the whole facility – I came with my dad years and years ago, and we’d sit at the top of the stretch, and the whole thing is just like it always was.”
Memory is selective, of course. There’s more fast food at the track than there used to be. Trainers no longer saddle their horses at trees on the grounds outside the track, where you used to be able to get close enough to your temporary investment to offer encouragement, even pat his nose. And the old tote board featuring individual light bulbs has been updated. Now it’s a giant, neon-bright screen, which Genaro regards as an improvement.
“Yes, that is new,” she said. “And while it might appear a little garish, it is well-received by the fans, who are very happy that the old, light bulb tote board was taken out that was hard to read and the bulbs got burned out and you didn’t know if your horse was 8-1 or 3-1.
The horse I picked in the first race went off at even shorter odds than 3-1. She was named Rosie’s Song, and she was a lock.
Except that she wasn’t. Well, she would have been if the finish line had been a furlong or so closer to the gate…but it wasn’t, and unless you had Rosie’s Song to place or show, you were out of luck, which I was.
So that was one more thing about Saratoga that hadn’t changed.