Visiting horse racing’s mecca

The Malibu Times assistant editor Jonathan Friedman and his grandmother, Marjorie Maynard, enjoy the day at Saratoga Race Course.

Located a little less than 200 miles northwest of New York City, Saratoga Springs has a population of just 26,000. The summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra, it is also known for its hipster nightlife and the left-leaning Skidmore College. But the city’s true claim to fame occurs every year from late July through Labor Day, when it opens its doors to the nation’s greatest thoroughbred racehorses.

Saratoga Race Course, known as The Spa because of the city’s many mineral water springs, sets itself apart from the nation’s other tracks with its large daily crowds and short 36-day meet. After many years of meaning to go to the mecca of thoroughbred horse racing but never getting around to it, last month I finally made the journey with my grandmother.

Crossing the gates of the facility, which first opened in 1864, into the festive area just outside the track was like entering a party. Pretty young women in beautiful dresses offered roses for sale. A ragtime band played friendly tunes of yesterday. And a clogger entertained a crowd of onlookers as she danced with enthusiasm despite the sweltering heat. And, of course, there were several people offering gambling tips. Each one held sheets of different colors, with promises of riches.

The racecourse itself is a spectacular beauty. A mile-and-an-eighth oval dirt track surrounds two smaller grass oval courses. In the middle is a lake containing a fountain and a floating canoe, which is painted in the colors of the silks of the most recent winner of the Travers Stakes, the meet’s oldest and most prestigious race.

My grandmother and I met my friend Chris, a racehorse owner who guided us around the facility. He led us to the paddock area, where the horses are saddled and prepared for their races. While the bettors and fans must observe the horses from the other side of the fence, we were able to enter the area and see these beautiful athletes up-close. The paddock is a grassy field with dirt pathways for the horses to walk around. Each horse stands next to a tree displaying his number for the race, and the animal is saddled, and then walks a little bit around the tree. He is later walked along the fence area, as people on the other side of the fence admire the horses and get last-second observations before placing a wager.

The jockeys’ walk to the paddock is unique because they move straight from the jockeys’ room through the crowd. Like rock stars, they are cheered and admired, and the small but athletically gifted riders sign autographs on the way.

The day was a special treat because on the card was a steeplechase race. Steeplechase racing, once a popular form, involves horses racing well over two miles (the usual horse race does not usually exceed much more than a mile), while leaping over fences along the way. It is a magical sight as the horses go over the fences in what looks like an equine ballet. Saratoga is one of the few major racecourses in this country that still has steeplechase racing. And this day had the biggest race of the meet, the New York Turf Writers’ Cup.

My grandmother and I, who were having a lousy day betting-wise, placed our money on a horse named Preemptive Strike. He flew out of the gate like a monster on a mission, running far ahead of his competitors. At one point, the horse took a 20-length lead. But one should never get too excited until the winner has crossed the finish line. Preemptive Strike soon lost his energy, and the other horses eventually passed him. He jogged quietly to the finish near last place.

The winner of the race was a 7-year-old mare named Footlights, and she became the first female champion since 1975.

The next day, my grandmother and I woke up at dawn to see the horses work out. We got to stand close to the rail and, because of fewer noise distractions, got to hear the galloping hooves and the heavy breathing of the horses. It was also an opportunity to eavesdrop on the horsemen as they chatted and gossiped. This was followed by a guided tour of the backstretch, where the horses and some of the people live.

We then walked across the street to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Through a collection of written materials and memorabilia, the museum guides visitors through the history of the sport, with an emphasis on its American heritage, which dates back to the Colonial days. The walls of the most important room in the museum are covered with plaques bearing the names of the Hall of Famers, the greatest horses and humans associated with the sport.

Later, we returned to the track. Unfortunately, our gambling continued to suffer that day. But I did get one final delight as Sam the Bugler entered the stands. Sam, who calls the horses to track every race with his musical instrument, told some great jokes while playing a few tunes on the bugle.

With the racing concluding in the evening, my grandmother and I left with a little less money than we came with. But we still had pleasant memories of the most historic home of the nation’s most historic sport.