When the sun goes down in Saratoga Springs, that doesn’t mean horse racing is done for the night. As the thoroughbred track winds down, the harness track is gearing up for an evening of racing, dining and gaming.
Neighboring Saratoga Gaming and Raceway accommodates a modest 3,500 spectators in the stands who can wager on the live harness races or on simulcasts from other tracks, said director of racing John Matarazzo.
“We are continuing to offer simulcasting of Saratoga’s thoroughbred races, as well,” Matarazzo said. “This is something we’ve been doing the last few years that has really been successful.”
Horses are standardbreds, pulling the drivers in sulkies, and harness racing depends largely on strategy and timing to win, rather than the sheer speed of the horse.
The smaller track, which has been in operation since 1941, is located on Crescent Avenue, within walking distance of Saratoga Race Course. Matarazzo is fond of the smaller harness track and believes the size has some advantages.
“It’s a quaint little half-mile track,” Matarazzo said. “It’s much more intimate; if you are sitting in the stands and the horses are on the opposite side of the track, you can still see everything perfectly.”
Races are run Wednesday through Saturday for most of July. Beginning July 29, the track adds Tuesday racing to the schedule, taking advantage of the dark days at the flat track.
Most post times for the summer months are after 7 p.m., which Matarazzo says helps draw in a different type of crowd.
“We offer so much here in the evenings,” Matarazzo said. “We, of course, have racing, but also formal dining, a garden buffet, a first-class nightclub [Vapor] and our gaming floor with over 1,700 VLTs.”
The video lottery terminals were an important improvement for the racetrack, not only for their entertainment value, but also to help improve the racing. A percentage of the profits from the gaming machines goes to fund the purses for races.
“Prior to the introduction of the VLTs, purse size was around $3 million. Now they are at $13 million,” Matarazzo said. “People want to own the horses now. The increased prizes draw more competition as people get interested in the product.”
VLTs are also an attraction unto themselves. Matarazzo said that many visitors to Saratoga Gaming and Raceway come exclusively for the VLTs. There are more than 150 different types of video gambling games, including five different types of video poker.
“The VLTs are a big draw for people,” Matarazzo said. “They provide a whole new segment of entertainment and help improve the quality of racing.”
After racing is completed for the evenings and the dinner crowd has cleared out, Vapor starts to get busy. The recently opened club hosts both local bands and national acts, including the Happenings.
Saratoga Gaming and Raceway is open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., and provides a wide range of evening and late-night entertainment. It remains a popular destination on summer nights in Saratoga Springs.
Parking and admission are free.