Ed Lewi still recalls the year his caterer groused about working the third annual open house at the Saratoga Race Course.
The New York Racing Association spokesman said the man claimed he was losing more than $18,000 at the event and was unhappy about having to put in the effort for absolutely no financial gain. So Lewi developed a simple solution.
“I said tell him to stay home,” he recalled Sunday from the race course.
Instead, Lewi and Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president Joe Dalton created an arrangement where area nonprofit organizations would serve up food during the event as a fundraiser. Now in its 28th year, he said the open house raises more than $30,000 each year for charitable organizations throughout the Capital Region.
While NYRA sets the prices for food and beverage sales, the charitable organizations reap the benefits. This year’s event featured Saratoga Jump Start, a two-day benefit for the National Steeplechase Foundation and the Spa City-based Wesley Foundation.
“This is all for charity,” Lewi said of the open house.
For the third consecutive year, volunteers from Living Resources, an organization that aids developmentally disabled people, were serving up hot dogs and hamburgers by the darkened pari-mutuel windows. Development director Bonnie Unser said her group had been anxious to get the coveted grill sales, which usually earns the organization about $3,500 .
“We get to net most of the money we make here” she said. “And it’s a huge sale.”
Likewise for the young Blue Streaks Running Club, a booster organization for the Saratoga Springs High School track and cross-country programs. The runners were selling cans of soda and soft pretzels to earn money for traveling to competitions.
“We’re hoping to take some trips this year,” said Demetri Goutos, one of the members. “It’s doing well.”
The event also offers track fans a free-to-the-public sneak peak at the race course each year, just three days before the gates officially open. Steeplechase races filled the grandstand with horse racing aficionados, while a host of carnival games and demonstrations kept families wandering the sprawling grounds off Union Avenue.
Gray clouds and an ominous weather report prompted organizers to move most of the events into the clubhouse just an hour before the gates opened. But despite a brief afternoon shower, curious track fans turned out in droves to catch their first glimpse of the grounds.
Gavin Landry, NYRA’s senior vice president, said the open house attendance this year seemed on par with the turnout last year. Track officials estimated more than 21,000 people came to the 2007 open house.
“It’s really a nice day out,” Landry said. “People are fairly attracted to it.”
NYRA officials unveiled several new improvements at the track this year, including an enclosed and air conditioned tent area constructed next to the clubhouse. Landry said NYRA invested more than $60,000 into the structure, which rests just a short distance away from the rail.
Workers were putting the finishing touches on “Restaurant Row,” an area where five downtown eateries will serve dishes from their respective menus. The improvements were among $1.1 million NYRA invested into the track this year. “It’s like an investment we’re making into the fan experience,” he said.
Kevin Acton of Saratoga Springs brought his 16-month-old son, Conner, to the track for the first time. They were taking a break from the festivities to catch a glimpse at the track’s luxury suites.
Acton said the open house gives him a chance to see areas of the track he probably wouldn’t visit during the year. For instance, he said his family isn’t likely to visit the suites at the going rental rate of nearly $2,000 per day for the most affordable one.
“You can go behind the scenes,” he said of the open house. “Otherwise, we would never be standing on the top floor of a luxury box.”
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