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.


Ernie said...

Not sure if Congress Park is the same as the State park---the one with the ducks, dog friendly, gorgeous, hard by the Holiday Inn (also dog-friendly).

Most of the hotels (or restaurant patios) don't allow dogs. Grrrr. Animal-loving town....

Drive-thru Dunkin Donuts is key.

Nice musical instrument store on Broadway. Great Ben and Jerry's behind Congress park.

diane said...

My in-laws own harness racers, which race almost year round. But nothing matches the excitement and beauty of thoroughbred racing at the flat track!

I love to take photos at morning workout, watch from the backstretch, mingle with the rich and famous in the paddock area.

Let me know when you're in the area!