Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tips for Enjoying Saratoga Race Course

Tomorrow is my favorite day of the year – it’s when track announcer Tom Durkin and the entire crowd at Saratoga Race Course join together to announce “And they’re off at Saratoga” as, for the 141st time, the horses spring from the gate for the first race of the meet, which runs 36 days through Labor Day.

The mere fact that you’re reading this means I probably don’t have to explain to you why so many horse racing fans of all stripes consider the Saratoga race meet to be heaven on earth. So instead the focus of this blog post is to provide some tips on how best to enjoy it, from someone who has visited Saratoga every summer for 34 years.

Where to Stay

For many, the only place to consider staying is in the city of Saratoga, and there are many fine, though expensive, choices there. For those willing to drive a little bit to and from the track each day to save $100 or more per night on a room, you will find outstanding, moderately priced lodging at each of the Hampton Inn at Clifton Park (10 miles south), the Century House in Latham (15 miles south) and the Desmond, (north of Albany, about 20 miles south of the track).

The Crowds

Some people love big crowds and packed restaurants; others prefer to attend when things are more staid. While Saratoga is never really quiet during the racing season, the town and racetrack are most crowded on Opening Day (July 29), and during the ten days preceding and including Travers weekend (August 19 to 30). The quietest weekends are the first one (August 1 & 2) and Labor Day (Sept 5 to 7).


Saratoga is famous for its picnic tables in the backyard, which offer a terrific view of the horses entering and circling the paddock where they are saddled. However, it is a long walk to the track to see the horses race. Arrive very early and stake out a spot on the picnic tables at the top of the stretch, where you watch the horses duel at the most critical juncture of the race.


You can buy general admission to the grandstand or Clubhouse at the gate. If you want reserved seats, they go on sale at 8 a.m. at the booth at Gate A on Union Avenue. But to get the best reserved seats, buy them on eBay, where they are usually available at a reasonable mark-up.

Parking at the Track

Savvy baseball fans park near the exit to the stadium lot, so they are first out after the game. So it is with Saratoga, where on a crowded day, a five-minute walk will save you 25 minutes of fighting traffic afterwards, and a few dollars as well. Many of the homes near Nelson Avenue let you park on their lawns for $5 - $15; the closer to the track, the more it costs, and the longer it takes to escape. If you are driving to Saratoga from the south, take exit 13N from the Northway (Rte 87) rather than Exit 14, and take a right on Crescent Avenue up to Nelson.

Breakfast / Backstretch Tour

What they say about this is really true – for the novice racing fan, there is no better way to experience Saratoga than eating breakfast at the rail and watching the morning workouts, and taking a tram tour of the backstretch.


Saratoga’s main street, Broadway, is bustling most nights of the week during the racing meet, and has dozens of fine restaurants and lively nightlife establishments, with something to suit everyone’s taste, and always a slew of new openings each season.

The Starting Gate Sports Bar, the Ole Bryan Inn and the Parting Glass are three of my favorites.

Must Visits

On every visit, I drive ten miles out of town on Route 29, in Greenwich, NY, you’ll find The Hand Melon Farm, which grows and sells the best cantaloupe melon you will ever find. It also sells other fruits and vegetables grown on the property. A short distance further up the road, you’ll find The Ice Cream Man, which sells outrageously good ice cream made in the shop.

Saratoga State Park is stunningly beautiful with its tall pine trees, and offers a great place for running, walking or biking.

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center offers an eclectic calendar of artists, including Bruce Springsteen on August 25. Spots on the lawn offer a decent view at a bargain price of $41 for the rock concerts.

To see how the other half lives, be sure to drive by the mansions on Broadway, out past Route 29/50.

Web Links

Visit the official Web sites for Saratoga, as well as for the local newspapers, in advance to get a sense of the local flavor.

The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce has info on where to eat & stay and what to do.

Saratoga Race Course is operated by the New York Racing Association; visit its official Web site.

The Saratoga Special is a terrific, free publication available ubiquitously in town, and also available online for (free) registered users.

The Albany Times Union offers some of the best coverage of all aspects of racing at Saratoga. Here are links to its blogs about the Racing, the town from the perspective of shop and restaurant owners, and a newsy blog about goings on in town.

The Saratogian is the local newspaper.

My favorite Web site is Equidaily, which offers a great roundup of horse racing coverage and advice about Saratoga.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Well Blog Fail: One PB&J Doesn't Fit All

The New York Times Well Blog recently hosted a conversation with a fitness guru about eating before a run.

Anyone who read this, and who has read my “Ten Tips for First-Time Marathoners” should have immediately thought, “uh-oh.”

Leslie Bonci, the sports nutritionist consulted by the Times, gives some good advice. As my Tip #9 says, you should think of food “as part of your equipment,” or to put it another way, as fuel that powers your body. But as to her detailed advice on exactly what, and when, to eat…

Re-read Tip #1 (this time in caps): BEWARE OF ONE SIZE FITS ALL ADVICE.

Bonci instructs Times readers to eat “a peanut butter and jelly wrap cut into little pieces” an hour before exercise. That might work well for Bonci, but I recently ran the Fairfield Half Marathon three hours after eating a peanut butter sandwich. Suffice to say that I was repeatedly reminded of what I ate for breakfast as I plowed through the hills of Fairfield. And visited a porta-potty for the first time ever during a race. Three times. And struggled to breathe up the steep hills because of gooey peanut butter lining... you get the point.

The comments section of the Bonci post particularly concerns me – and proves my point. Commenter Sharon writes, “Wow, I do everything wrong!” and then describes a routine that doesn’t fit Bonci’s advice. But it may well work for Sharon, and now she’s going to change her routine to what works for Bonci. Amazingly, Well Blog editor Tara Parker-Pope replies, “You’re not alone… I’m doing everything wrong too!” So, the writer of Well Blog and the bulk of its readers, have suddenly discovered they’re “doing everything wrong” after years of successful exercise, because they don’t do everything exactly like Bonci does? Well Blog Fail.

Everyone is different. You need to trust your own body and experience, not the word of experts. A few years ago, a fitness guru sent me and 600 other first-time marathoners an email saying that stretching is all but unnecessary for long distance runners. This may be true for him, but if I don’t stretch for two days, I can’t even walk without intense pain, and I stretch for hours in the 24 hours leading up to a race.

To take another example, once I was advising two small-framed women on their first marathon, I asked an experienced small-framed woman marathoner to give them advice on hydration. Why? Because I perspire heavily and weigh 200 lbs., and so I consume 1.5 gallons of fluid during a marathon, as repeated experience has told me this is the right amount for me. If these women followed my routine, they might drown, and I can't begin to guess what amount of fluid was proper for them.

I have some recommendations on eating for a race – I eat continuously the night before, and snack lightly on granola bars and orange slices as I run – but you need to test out different strategies when you train. You’re the only expert on your own body.

 If your body chokes up when you chew granola, or orange slices, or peanut butter, ditch them and try something else, and when you find what works, stick with it, no matter what I, Ms. Bonci, or the Well Blog may say.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Assassins and their Fatal Fictions

FindingDulcinea's "On This Day" for July 2 contains several fascinating, little-known facts about the assassination of President Garfield. One that struck me was the defense asserted by assassin Charles Guiteau at his trial: “Some of these days instead of saying ‘Guiteau the assassin’, they will say ‘Guiteau the patriot.’”

Guiteau believed that the murder was an act in the public interest. This belief is hardly exceptional as assassins go. Self-delusion of a noble, heroic purpose is a common thread connecting murderous lone actors of history.

What convinces an assassin that he’s a national hero? How does one man, out of so many millions who might share similar political beliefs and passions, conclude that it is his destiny to commit murder for the greater good?

Guiteau defended his action as “a political necessity,” and was so confident of general approbation that he instructed General William Tecumseh Sherman, “I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once.”

A prior findingDulcinea “On This Day” about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln reveals a similar theme, as John Wilkes Booth was shocked at the public’s grief and failure to applaud the murder. His letters provide disturbing insight into his motivations, such as this excerpt printed by the New York Times: “When a country like this spurns justice from her side, She forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act, as his conscience may approve.”

The recent assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller once again echoed this same sad, deluded tale. Although many tried to link the murder to the heated rhetoric of our cable news culture, only one man translated this passion into violence.

FindingDulcinea Senior Writer Shannon Firth analyzed Tiller's murder and explored the motives of assassins, detailing the three types categorized by author Kris Hollington. There are “wolves,” who seek notoriety, “jackals,” who are hired hands, and finally “foxes,” who are “novices hoping to make a political statement.”

According to Hollington, these foxes are intensely passionate, but are also “ordinary, unremarkable people, often failures: the antithesis of the men and women they try to kill.” Although they justify their actions in political and often religious language, “it’s all within the troubled mind of the lone individual… almost a movie in their mind.”

Do their personal failures, then, prod them towards an alternate reality, in which they can play the film-star heroes? John Hinckley, Jr., possibly inspired by the movie Taxi Driver, believed that by shooting Ronald Reagan he could win the love of actress Jodie Foster. He later explained himself, according to PBS, with this rumination on fiction: “The line dividing life and art can be invisible. After seeing enough hypnotizing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops which can either be harmless or quite dangerous.”

I suppose heroism, and even history, is always something of a fiction, a combination of reality and the myths built around it. But I can’t stop wondering what it takes to push an individual into a myth so fatal, so extreme, and so disconnected from the society he believes he is saving.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parenting, Not Lecturing

Reading findingDulcinea’s recent article on what parents should know about teen dating reminded me of Otto Frank's remarks when he first read his daughter Anne Frank’s diary in the 1960s:

“For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.”

Isn't this what every father reading his daughter's diary would think?

So, short of reading a diary, how do fathers (and mothers) learn the depths of their children’s thoughts and feelings? And how can parents use this knowledge to safely steer their teenagers past the risks that confront today’s teens?

I don’t want to set myself up as a parenting guru, out of fear that my Internet-savvy daughters will post a counterpoint in the comment section. But that findingDulcinea article confirmed many of the strategies and insights I’ve stumbled upon while raising kids.

First off, I’ve found that an “open dialogue” is, as the article says, essential. Don’t do all the talking. Or even most of it. Ask questions – their answers might surprise you. More importantly, behave as if there is no "right" answer, and no repercussions for the "wrong" answer. Listen to and reflect on their responses, and then act on them.

Heatedly lecturing them about drugs or sex, for example, is often counter-productive. Before you try to scare them, ask about the landscape they encounter and how they feel about it. For all you know, your kid may be struggling not with drugs or alcohol, but with fitting in as someone who doesn’t use them. In that case, she’d need support, coping strategies, and a sympathetic ear more than a threatening harangue.

And, having felt invincible myself at age 16, I always attributed reckless teen behavior to illusions of invulnerability, but a recent study found the opposite can be true. A shocking number of teens simply don't care about their safety because they believe they will die by age 35. Imagine shouting at an irresponsible teen that she wasn't invincible, only to discover that her recklessness stemmed from hopeless fatalism. Ask about the problem before you try to solve it.

Another way to build trust with your teen is through “ground rules” – for both child and parent. Your kids should understand what you consider unacceptable behavior, but should also feel they can come to you when there’s a real problem. Everyone makes mistakes, and your son or daughter is not only a human being, but one still very much developing. Who survives adolescence without a crisis or three? And when that crisis comes, they need to turn to you, without worrying about the repercussions, or else you may only found out about the crisis from someone else, and when it’s too late to do much about it.

For instance, if they’re stranded somewhere drunk or high or just in a troubling situation, it’s more important that they get home safely than that they get grounded for a month. Let them know that they can call you with immunity. The very act of picking up the phone to ask for help is an admission of wrongdoing, and, for their safety, you need to accept it as their apology.

That said, they should still take such situations seriously. If they’re calling you for help often, then there’s a bigger problem to address, and one that requires both vigilance and consequences. Some parents even make contracts with their teens, so that each party acknowledges its own responsibilities.

I don’t have all of the answers, and neither do you. But, as another article stresses, a strong family support system can make the difference between a healthy and a troubled teen. That support system can only be built through great communication with your kids. Your role is not simply to impart wisdom learned from "when you were a kid." Things change, teens change, and things likely never were the way you remember them anyway.