RACING journalist LAURA KING, based in Dubai, took a trip to Saratoga, USA recently and reflects on her colourful time in the village where racing started in 1847. (Originally published on gg.co.uk).
IT’s hard to put Saratoga into words, especially when I’d heard so many good ones about it beforehand. The 6th of August – Grade 1 Whitney Handicap day – was my first visit, and it was tricky not to think that surely it wouldn’t live up to the hype.
The first thing to note, for other first-timers, is that Saratoga is in upstate New York – which means a long way upstate, as in nowhere near Manhattan. The drive from New York City took just shy of three hours. The second thing to note is that accommodation in Saratoga town – which, although tiny, bizarrely calls itself ‘a city’ – is expensive, with locals keen to make the most of the track’s six-week racing season. Besides that, not much happens all year in this charming little metropolis, made up of wooden houses a stone’s throw from the track, strewn between horse walks and tall, shadowy trees.
A little like Newmarket, Middleham or Lambourn, perhaps, Saratoga revolves around horses – at least during its hectic summer season. Racing for just six weeks, every day except Tuesday, might seem an odd concept to UK-based fans, but it works in that people really embrace it. Rich Manhattan-ites rent a house there for the duration, while big-name trainers Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Kiaran McLaughlin are among those to base strings there for the summer.
This is all because the racing is top-notch. In addition to the $1.25-million Whitney, won so impressively by Godolphin’s Frosted, Saratoga hosts 14 other Grade 1s, including the Alabama [won by star filly Songbird], the ‘Midsummer Derby’ of the Travers, and the meeting-closing Woodward. Add into that a plethora of Grade 2s and 3s, plus some decent maidens, and you have six weeks of superstars, and potential stars.
Then, there’s the history. Racing in Saratoga dates back to 1847, and some of its buildings go back that far too – not bad for America. The wooden grandstand, although slightly cramped compared with the much newer Arlington or Belmont, for example, adds to the charm of the place, and, although most days are busy, the course’s friendly staff seem to handle crowds well, and it has the capacity for 50,000.
So, if it’s that good, a day’s racing at Saratoga must come at a price, right? You’d be surprised; it’s affordable. Grandstand tickets will set you back just $5 [except for Travers Day when they are a whopping $10], and it’s only $8 for the swankier Clubhouse. Take note, UK, racecourses. Furthermore, there is no dress code for the Grandstand and you can take in a stacked cool box for an addition $5. Instead of rowdiness this makes for a relaxed, easy atmosphere, with short-clad Americans lounging in deckchairs, drinking Bud, on any available patch of lawn. Thankfully, Saratoga has many of these, and welcomes all with open arms. They don’t stand on ceremony here; how refreshing.
So, what’s it like truly immersing yourself in Saratoga-ness and staying there for all six weeks? “It’s fantastic!” says Mike Kaye, Manager of Touch Gold Racing. “It’s a very peaceful place which comes alive at night and is super-friendly and welcoming. “Everyone is into their racing and the owners and trainers I’ve met are all very passionate and seem to love the place.”
However long you stay; you’ll leave wanting more. That’s another part of Saratoga’s charm.