Saratoga County

Betting strategies and fashion as Saratoga Race Course opens

Anticipation for the 148th opening day at Saratoga Race Course came to a head Friday morning as loca
Sam the Bugler sounds the Call to Post in the first race of the Sarartoga Race Course 2016 season Friday, July 22, 2016
Sam the Bugler sounds the Call to Post in the first race of the Sarartoga Race Course 2016 season Friday, July 22, 2016

Anticipation for the 148th opening day at Saratoga Race Course came to a head Friday morning as locals and out-of-towners alike thronged the Spa City to join in the long-standing upstate tradition.

Cars on Union Avenue were backed up as traffic guards halted vehicles to let jockeys and horses trot across the street.

Pedestrians loaded with lawn chairs and coolers weaved between merchant voices shouting, “Bottled water, one dollar, it’s five dollars inside!” and “Tip sheet, get your tip sheet!”

The crowd buzzed with pleasant conversation as the lines grew long hours before the scheduled opening of 11 a.m. As the opening approached, people stood on tiptoe to glance over the heads in front of them, waiting for the gates to open.

Nick DiCaprio, 61, and Bob Garrett, 59, stood next to each other in line as total strangers, but quickly became friendly acquaintances as they struck up a lively conversation about racing, betting and ticket prices. Both longtime attendees of the track, they reminisced about past seasons, wins — and losses.

“The way I learned [to bet] was when my uncle taught me when I was 15,” said DiCaprio, an Amsterdam resident with a bald head, salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, gravelly voice and warm smile. DiCaprio explained that his uncle owned harness horses and brought DiCaprio to the track in the 1970s to share his insight. His uncle taught him how to read the numbers, analyzing the stats and facts for each horse.

“I study the [tip] sheet — the speed, how long ago did they last run,” DiCaprio said.

“I’m just the opposite; I go for the names and colors,” Garrett said with a chuckle. “I always pick the gray horse.”

While DiCaprio was attending the races for the first time in eight years, Garrett hasn’t missed an opening day in 25 years. The track hasn’t changed much since then, according to DiCaprio. Old wood can be seen in some of the structures, and the crowds appear the same size they were 40 years ago, he said. Both men agreed that meeting new people and chatting up fellow gamblers is one of the highlights of going to Saratoga.

“People know I’m gonna to take this day off,” said Garrett, a Halfmoon resident sporting a Kentucky Derby cap. “I just love this place.”

By the numbers

• Total paid attendance: 32,980

• All-sources handle: $17,768,443

source: NYRA

Garrett said he doesn’t usually make large, risky wagers, but always notices when the big spenders step up to the tellers and place a bet.

“The guy in front of ya is droppin’ 500 bucks, and here I am with eight dollars,” Garrett said with a smile, garnering a laugh from DiCaprio.

At one point Nathan Szaryc, 60, of Ipswich, Mass., joined in the chat with DiCaprio and Garrett, remembering a race one year that was so cold the tips of their fingers nearly froze while they flipped through their tip sheets. In his thick Boston accent, Szaryc explained his betting strategy.

“I go by the horses … but I bet on the jockeys and trainers, too,” he said. “Eighty percent of the time, the top 20 percent of the trainers win the races.”

People in line cheered when the gates opened at 11 a.m. The grandstands were quiet and empty at first. The soft dirt of the track was freshly raked, untouched by thundering hoofs, and the strong summer breeze was tinged with the slight scent of manure.

Soon, people poured out to the track from under the grandstands, emerging into the sizzling sunshine with full pockets and tip sheets in hand. By the time the first race went off at 1 p.m., the bleachers were full and the fence was crowded with excited spectators.

The signature fashions of the track were out in full force, too. Men strutted about in shorts and button-up shortsleeves, biting on thick cigars and wearing straw fedoras on their heads. Many women sported fancy summer dresses and high heels, while others opted for shorts and breezy blouses.

Ten-year-old Caroline Johansen leaned up against the chain-link fence by the track between her mother, Chrisanne, and her father, David. Like DiCaprio’s uncle, Caroline’s parents were teaching her how to use the sheets and what the odds meant.

Caroline chose to bet on one horse named My Cara Mia, despite the grim odds of 15-1.

“Because my [nick]name is Cara,” the girl said.

The family drove upstate from the city of Rye, and it was only Caroline’s second time at a horse track. The first was in Virginia, where she had a good bit of luck choosing winners.

“I only bet by the names,” Caroline said.

“And she won every time,” added her mother with a chuckle.

“We’re teaching her all about the odds,” as well as the meaning of win, place and show wagers, said her father.

Spectators continued to crowd the race course throughout the afternoon as temperatures soared into the low 90s. Each time the sound of a bugle played over the loudspeaker, the crowd maneuvered to the track to watch and cheer. Shouting began as the horses rumbled by, sometimes ending with crumpled vouchers tossed to the ground in defeat.

But for those bestowed with either good luck or the proper strategy, the races ended with high-fives and cheers.

Categories: Life and Arts, News, Sports

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