When I make my annual August visit to Saratoga Springs, my preference is always to spend part of the days at the racetrack or downtown mingling among the crowds in order to observe the festivities and soak up the sights and sounds. Occasionally, I’ll chat with strangers. These conversations illustrate the diversity of people who make up the compelling fabric of the venerable race course and its surrounding environs.
Here are a few examples.
Several weeks ago, NYRA held a two-day handicapping contest. Two rough-hewn former iron workers from Connecticut and their wives were staying at the same motel as me. One of them was in a wheelchair and missing a leg. After the first day of the NYRA contest, the fellows were upbeat and optimistic about their chances of taking home some of the prize money. Later, on the night of the second day of the contest, I encountered one of their wives and inquired how the guys had fared. She said “Don’t Ask, they had lots of seconds.” The last I saw, the disappointed handicappers were quietly packing their car for the trip home.
About two years ago at the racetrack, on the green benches in front of a restaurant located on the ground floor of the clubhouse, I talked with a divorced father and his teenage son from Philadelphia. Every summer the pair spend a week visiting various sporting events on the son’s bucket list, such as a Major League Baseball game or a National Football League preseason game. This particular day, the son, an avid soccer player, chose the races at Saratoga. The night before, they had been at a Buffalo Bills game in Buffalo. The father said he had spent many a day at Philadelphia Park (now PARX) and the visit to Saratoga was his first encounter with top-level racing.
Five years ago, just outside the racetrack structure in the grandstand section, I met a fellow in his mid-to-upper sixties sitting in a lawn chair handicapping the races. He told me he lived in Rochester, New York, where he was the founder and CEO of a medical device company. He comes to Saratoga for the races for a couple of days every summer and, though he could have afforded a clubhouse seat, he said he preferred the lawn chair and watching every race on a television monitor. The men with him were all executives of some sort.
This year, I was resting on a park bench outside the clubhouse, in the back, and had a conversation with a forty-something woman from Garden City on Long Island, who was sitting next to me smoking an electronic cigarette. She said she was attending the races with her father and mother and three children, ages 13 to 20, who were at a table in one of the clubhouse restaurants. One of the kids kept calling her on her cellphone to find out what horse to bet on. Over the course of some 15 minutes, she told me, a total stranger, of how her alcoholic husband had deserted the family three years ago, leaving her to sell the family business and raise the children. Coming to the races at Saratoga was part of the healing process for the family,
Once, I was standing on the ground floor of the clubhouse near the Jim Dandy bar watching a TV monitor when a well-spoken man in his late sixties or early seventies struck up a dialogue. His main topic was racing integrity, and he advised me to stick to betting on Thoroughbred races, rather than harness races, because, in his view, Thoroughbred races are more honestly run. The source of this information was his long-ago acquaintance, a New York City tailor, whose customers included a number of both Thoroughbred and harness trainers. The tailor reportedly opined that his harness-trainer customers spent a lot more for custom-made suits than his Thoroughbred-trainer clientele, allegedly because they made so much money from betting on fixed races. Now that was convincing, wasn’t it?
These aren’t the typical faces we see on television at Saratoga Race Course. They aren’t the faces of owners, trainers, television personalities, or celebrities, but they are the faces of a few of the anonymous masses who have enabled Saratoga Race Course to continue on year after year ever since 1863.
Experiences meeting these types of folks are part of the allure of Saratoga… and can’t be had sitting in a clubhouse box.
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