Horses: Racing just part of a totally equine day

Plenty of people make a a day of the races, but this city has so much more for those who want a thor

Plenty of people make a a day of the races, but this city has so much more for those who want a thoroughly equine experience. You just have to know where to look.

Mike Kane, spokesman for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs and a longtime race track observer, said thoroughbreds of note can always be found at the museum. Kane wants people to visit the exhibits, located on Union Avenue, but suggests people begin looking across the street, at the race course during early morning.

Breakfast at the track begins at 7 a.m., and gives the omelet and toast crowd chances to see horses participate in timed workouts.

“You can sit in the box seats and nobody bothers you,” said Kane. That’s not the case when races begin during the early afternoon, and thousands of paying customers fill the grandstand.

Not all horses spend their first morning hours on the main track. Many are exercising at the Oklahoma training track, and people who invest in the museum’s daily, 90-minute walking tour can see horses, trainers, barns and baths.

“You get a real flavor of what goes on in the barn area and training center away from the actual races,” Kane said, explaining that visitors often see top thoroughbreds working out.

During the six-week racing meet, tours are held at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday, except on Saturday, Aug. 23, the day the Travers Stakes will be held.

Reservations are suggested during the meet and must be received by 4 p.m. the day before the tour. People who take the walk must be at least 10 years old; comfortable, sturdy shoes are suggested. The tours cost $10 per person and include admission into the museum.

At the Track

Thoroughbreds perform at the race track from early afternoon until early evening every day except Tuesdays. Kane said people who want great views of horses should do two things — find the paddock and find a spot on the rail.

Horses are saddled in the paddock, and fans traditionally have jammed fences enclosing the grassy warm-up area for looks at favorites and long shots.

“That’s part of the flavor of the race track,” Kane said. “At Saratoga, it’s right in front of the public.”

A spot at the rail means an investment in time; fans have to find a spot about 20 minutes before a race, before the crowd gathers — sometimes standing three or four deep — to watch horses charge toward the finish line. Kane suggests a spot near the top of the stretch.

“When the horses come off that turn, you’re pretty close to the action,” he said. “You see them flying off the turn and onto the stretch. It’s a different view than the person gets standing at the finish line.”

Horses Downtown

Thoroughbreds don’t run in downtown Saratoga Springs, but their presence is still there. Tourists can shop the horse all over Broadway, eat in a diverse collection of restaurants and cafes or take a ride in a 100-year-old horse-drawn carriage.

One of the most popular places for stallion and mare collectibles is Impressions, on Broadway at Phila Street. Owners Marianne and Dave Barker have about 500 items in stock that are thoroughly thoroughbred in nature, most of them priced at under $20.

The Barkers offer horses on posters, T-shirts, ball caps, lunch boxes and ties. Some horse souvenirs are artistic. Bronze statues of mares and foals are prized by some collectors. So are photographs by celebrated equine photographer Barbara D. Livingston.

“The Travers posters are also very popular,” Barker said. “We’ve been carrying them since 1986, since the very first one was printed.”

People don’t have to shop for horses to see them downtown. One of the city’s conversation pieces is the mirror-tiled, life-sized horse model on Broadway. On a recent summer afternoon, several people with cameras — and kids — passed the horse and clicked quick pictures.

Horse photos are on the walls at sports — and racing-friendly — restaurants like Broadway’s Stadium Cafe and The Parting Glass on Lake Avenue. At the Grey Gelding bistro and bar on Broadway, between Lake Avenue and Division Street, the 14-foot Fiberglas sculpture “Neck to Neck” hangs on the wall opposite the bar. The artwork shows two thoroughbreds racing, one just barely ahead of the other.

Diners and drinkers will rub the horses’ back ends when they’re leaving the restaurants. “Just for good luck,” said Jamie Beale, one of the owners.

Horse play

As evening approaches, it is polo time. A little later, and into the night, harness racing becomes the only live game in town.

Polo is played Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings at 5:30 p.m. on the Saratoga Polo Association’s field at Bloomfield and Denton roads in Greenfield. Games involve two teams of four people — all on horseback — driving a ball into the opposing team’s goal.

The association formed in 1898, and competitions for various cups will continue throughout the summer. Tickets are available at the gate or can be purchased at all branches of the 1st National Bank of Scotia or at Saratoga Saddlery on Broadway.

People can get close to the horses in polo. But association officials don’t want them getting too close — they say the polo ball often is knocked over the sideboards that line the playing field, and both ponies and players can come close to spectators.

“For your own safety,” the association warns, “please don’t get closer than 10 yards to the edge of the field.”

Horses and sulkies — light, two-wheeled carriages — are prime attractions for evening cards at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, south of Saratoga Race Course on Nelson Avenue.

Harness races are held Tuesday through Saturday. The first race starts at 7:20 p.m.

“We have between 11 and 13 races,” said John Matarazzo, director of racing operations.

The raceway keeps a busy summer schedule. In addition to evening races, the complex is open during the afternoon for betting action at Saratoga Race Course; people who want to avoid big heat or big rain can wager and watch television simulcasts of races held just down the street.

While summer is prime time for thoroughbreds, it’s also a big time for the harness athletes.

“During the summer we run our sire stakes programs, that’s when we have the best horses in New York state all competing,” Matarazzo said. “They’re big races with large purses.”

He said more money is part of the raceway’s attraction for horsemen. Keeping them happy means keeping fans happy.

“Prior to the opening of the racino, the horsemen’s purses were less than $3 million a year. Now they’re over $13 million,” Matarazzo said. “That affects the quality of the race horses we get. We get a better quality race horse now because the purses are bigger.”

The only thing tourists can’t do in Saratoga is ride a race horse. The closest thing to the experience is at the Museum of Racing, where a mechanical “simulator” became a permanent attraction in 2006. The 21⁄2-minute “ride” lets most racing fans — small children are not allowed — become part of the fast and furious set.

It’s not easy; the simulation forces people to use the same muscles jockeys do during their daily trips around the race track.

For a far less strenuous experience, you can take an old-fashioned carousel ride in Congress Park for 50 cents. The carousel operates Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to dusk. It is closed on Mondays and rainy days.

Or, you take a carriage ride downtown any evening starting at 4 p.m. The horse and carriages are on Broadway near the Wine Bar, 417 Broadway. The cost is $60 for a half-hour ride up North Broadway, $110 for an hour-long ride that also includes the Congress Park area and $225 for an hour’s personalized ride anywhere downtown.

A Victorian carriage ride down an historic street, just as visitors might have experienced a hundred years ago, is the perfect ending to a thoroughly equine day.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

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