SARATOGA SPRINGS — Gilbert Wendt was among thousands of people who streamed through the gates Friday for the opening day of Saratoga Race Course.
But for the longtime Gloversville resident, Friday was special for more reasons than horses. Wendt was celebrating his 102nd birthday, surrounded by his family at a picnic table at the Top of the Stretch, and he has been coming to Saratoga Race Course every opening day since before World War II.
“It’s a tradition to come to the track and celebrate my birthday,” he said. “It’s always a fun time, and everyone is friendly. I’ve never left feeling bad about losing.”
Tom Sunkes, of Troy, has been coming to the track on opening day for more than 40 years.
The retiree sits in the same spot every year — under a tree near the entrance to the Clubhouse with his former co-workers from National Grid.
“Whether you win or lose, you always have a good time here,” he said. “I look forward to it every year.”
Sunkes said that, over the years, he’s noticed upgrades to the facilities at Saratoga Race Course.
“They’ve revamped a lot of stuff, but they also keep the historic aspects,” he said.
The Stretch, which debuted Friday in the Grandstand at the Top of the Stretch, is the latest hospitality area to debut at the track since the mid-1960s, according to the New York Racing Association. It features 32 boxes that can accommodate four to 12 guests.
The people and the excitement keep Sunkes coming back to Saratoga Race Course year after year.
“It’s the best racing you’ll find anywhere,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to be back here.”
Dave Lafleche, of Clifton Park, couldn’t think of a better way to spend Friday with his wife, Patricia Darmetko.
“It’s a beautiful way to spend the day together,” said Lafleche, who has been visiting Saratoga Race Course for 65 years.
He said a person can create their own experiences at the track.
“It can be as cheap or expensive of a day as you want it to be,” he said. “You can bring your family, and there’s a variety of things to do.”
Paul Hutchins, of New Hampshire, said the New York State Public Employer Labor Relations Association conference he’s attended every year for the past 25 years at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs ends on opening day each year.
“One of the charter members of the organization, Bill Holcomb, got me to come here 25 years ago, and I’m so thankful he did,” Hutchins said. “I love the history of it.”
Hutchins said he enjoys the diverse population at Saratoga Race Course.
“There’s such an eclectic crowd — families, young people and wealthy people,” he said. “Everyone is having a great time.”
Wendt, whose birthday falls on Tuesday, said it means a lot to celebrate his 102nd surrounded by his family at Saratoga Race Course.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to have a family like this,” he said.
Wendt’s son, Mark, a Johnstown resident, said, “People always say, ‘God bless him,’ and we’re the ones who have been blessed to have him.”
Wendt said he hopes Saratoga Race Course is around for years to come.
“I hope it continues,” he said. “It’s world-famous, and I’d like to see it keep operating.”
Wendt added, “This may be my last season though, because I have issues hearing and seeing.”
“He’s been saying that since his 100th birthday, and he’s still going,” said his daughter, Nancy Komar.