Trainers were scratching racehorses on opening day at the Saratoga Race Course, but the 25,155 fans who turned up wouldn’t miss this yearly spectacle simply because of temperatures that approached triple-digits.
“If our feet were sticking to the molten concrete, then we’d have a problem,” said Saratoga Springs resident and track regular Jim Eccles, who admitted he couldn’t coerce anyone else to come.
After suggestions earlier in the week that Friday’s racing could be canceled due to heat, it was ultimately held without incident and attendance exceeded last year’s drenched opening day by about 2,000.
The first race of the meet kicked off with the crowd joining announcer Tom Durken in the call of, “And they’re off at Saratoga.”
The thoroughfares were well trafficked, as fans holding rolled-up programs moved briskly through crowds, others leisurely strolled while sipping lemonade and young children pestered jockeys for signatures before and after races. There was a buzz in the air as the track was awakened after an almost 11-month slumber.
For a minority of racing fans, though, like Eccles’ wife, the weather was too inhospitable. “She’s back in the air conditioning at home,” Eccles said as he sat on a bench by himself near the track railing and basked in the heat.
Describing himself as a “real regular,” the former Albany resident said he moved up to the area because he couldn’t take the drive and since retiring attends about 90 percent of the 40-day meet. At the track, Eccles likes to watch people and the races, but doesn’t describe himself as much of a bettor — he said he is usually prepared to lose about $50 in a day.
Armed with a cooler and a reluctance to “hide” from the beating sun, he said this opening day was as successful as years in the past.
“The foundation has been laid here to the point where [the New York Racing Association] can’t really screw it up,” Eccles said. “Just open the doors, and we come in like sheep.”
Acceptance of the temperature seemed to be the prevailing mood at the track on Friday, with people thriving in the hot afternoon and responding by seeking out every inch of shade available, constantly hydrating, fanning themselves with their hands and, in the case of some men, abandoning their shirts. A few brave souls camped out along the railing, but for the most part, people made their pilgrimage to the rail minutes before a race and then promptly scurried off to cooler pastures. Even the horses had a shortened parade, as they were kept in the paddock for a longer period.
Cliff Schwenke of New Jersey, who described himself as “born and bred Saratoga,” had no problems soaking up the heat from his collapsible chair on a small raised platform in front of section “O” in the grandstand.
“I knew it was going to be hot,” he said. “I’ve got my hat on. I got my sunscreen on. I’m all right.”
Smoking a cigar and leafing through handicapping material he printed from the Internet, the well-traveled football coach said there is nothing like opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. “It’s good as always. The quaintness of the place, the history of the place [and] the tradition of Saratoga,” Schwenke said. “You can’t beat it.”
That history and tradition was shaken up a little bit this year, most noticeably with changes to the vendors. This included a family area in the northwest corner that featured lower-priced food, such as $2 ice cream sandwiches, hot dogs and cans of soda.
Also unveiled throughout the track were select 12-ounce beers that sold for $3, which was well received by 22-year-old Matt Canavan of Saratoga Springs. “That’s pretty cool,” he said. “I always thought the stuff was kind of overpriced.”
Canavan, who was stopping in for a few races before work that night, said he has been waiting for opening day since last year. He was surprised that so many people seemed to have had the same inclination about what to do on Friday,
“I was thinking the heat might keep people away,” he said. “I had to park three long blocks away.”
The large crowd included newcomer Trisha Stocker, 16, of Latham, who had never been to the track before and was taken with the footwear on the jockeys. “I like the guys’ boots,” she said with a laugh.
Enjoying a chicken sandwich from the Hattie’s stand, Stocker said she wasn’t betting and was actually unaware that she wasn’t legally old enough to bet.
Her friend Amanda Farinacci, 18, of Troy, said the heat couldn’t stop them from taking part in a tradition that dates back nearly 150 years. She said the heat only impacted their attire, with both of them dressing to stay cool.
This was not the main consideration for people attending the exclusive luncheon hosted by socialite Marylou Whitney in the second-floor Carousel Restaurant. The big names in the racing social scene, like Michele Riggi, Jeannette Jordan and Ed Lewi, ignored the sweltering heat with suits and dresses as they packed into a cramped, cordoned-off area for a gathering that is about 60 years old.
Whitney and husband John Hendrickson held court during the affair, which offered complimentary drinks, a small buffet spread and a prelude to the 20th annual hat contest on Sunday.
The food spread was much more low-key for five guys from Northville, who were making their own sandwiches and drinking cans of beer from a cooler in the family area. Dustin Mineconzo, 19, said he tries to get to the track as much as possible, and since he doesn’t work Fridays, it made sense to try opening day this year.
In order to secure a picnic table, which is considered prime real estate on busy racing days, a member of the group showed up at 6 a.m.
It was the first time at the track for David Downing of Northville. “It gets me out of town,” he said, “drinking beer [and] having a good time.”
The 8.5 percent increase in attendance was accompanied by more betting this year, too, as the on-track handle increased by about $420,000, to $3,551,745. In a statement, NYRA President and CEO Charles Hayward said he was encouraged by the opening day results and suggested they could signify a good weekend.