SARATOGA SPRINGS — Diana Burke has long enjoyed her box seats near the finish line at Saratoga Race Course.
This summer, Burke might try new seats at the track — the plush, green-cushioned chairs inside the Founders’ Room at the new 1863 Club.
“It’s amazing, it really is amazing,” said Burke, as she explored the three floors of Saratoga’s ambitious and atmospheric new hospitality house. “It’s modern but it still has the charm of Saratoga Race Course.”
Officials from the New York Racing Association on Tuesday previewed the air-conditioned, copper-topped club for about 150 local civic and business officials and racing aficionados. Located on the “clubhouse turn,” the new facility is named for the year Saratoga hosted its first organized thoroughbred race meet. The first races were held over the course of four days in august 1863.
“I encourage everyone to wander around,” said David O’Rourke, NYRA’s chief executive officer. “Just be careful what you touch, it might be wet.”
O’Rourke was not kidding. Painters were still on the job earlier in the day, and blue masking tape was still visible on parts of the staircase banister in the lobby. On the second floor, electricians were installing electronic betting machines.
The club will be all business Thursday, when Saratoga opens for the 2019 season. Drinks and lunch will be brought to tables by black-clad servers.
The project started last Sept. 4, when officials broke ground on the site of the At the Rail Pavilion. The 1863 Club replaces the pavilion.
Lead architect Matt Hurff of Saratoga Springs’ Frost Hurff Architects praised the builders, tradesmen, architects, inspectors, preservation officials and others who made the $30 million building a reality.
“Each and every one of you has left your mark on this building,” Hurff said. “Each and every one of you has shown your character in the choices and decisions that were made. It’s been a true honor to play a very small part in its development.”
Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, shared important dates in the race course’s history with party guests. The first grandstand, for instance, was built in 1864. It was replaced in 1892 by the first clubhouse.
“Change has always been part of Saratoga Race Course and not always easily accepted at first,” Bosshart said. “The opening of the 1863 Club marks one of the largest single investments to be made since the current clubhouse was built in 1928.
“The foundation understands the need not only to preserve the historic character of the oldest sports venue in the country,” Bosshart added, “but also the need to modernize so NYRA can continue to be able to offer some of the best thoroughbred racing in the country.”
The 1863 Club offers:
* “The Rail at the 1863 Club,” a buffet restaurant on the first floor that can seat up to 500 people.
* The “Founders’ Room,” an exclusive, second-floor members club for Saratoga box holders who want an extra experience during their day at the races.
* Luxury suites, five furnished rooms on the third floor that can accommodate between 30 and 55 people. All suites — with names such as “Native Dancer,” “Forego” and “Rachel Alexandra” — offer private balconies and spectacular views of the race course.
* “Legends Hall,” an event space for parties of up to 100.
* An open-air bridge for people walking from the clubhouse to the “Founders’ Room,” a walkway built above the paddock path to the race course. Red-shirted white caps on duty Tuesday said people will not be able to cross the bridge while horses are walking underneath. “No food or drink will come this way,” said one of the attendants.
The new spaces are expensive. Rental for luxury suites can run into the thousands.
According to brochures available Tuesday, the 30-person capacity “Native Dancer” and “Forego” suites will rent for $5,400 on Wednesday and Thursday and $6,000 on Friday and Saturday. Rentals include the listed number of tickets, admission and Post Parade programs; all groups will be required to add a food and beverage package at additional cost.
According to NYRA.com, seating at “The Rail” near the front windows will cost $225 on Wednesday and Thursday, with $140 for standard seating on the same days. The prices jump to $275 and $160, respectively, on Friday and Saturday. Prices include buffet, admission and program.
People seemed anxious to visit again — when horses and jockeys are on the track.
“It’s wonderful,” said Jack Knowlton, operating manager of Sackatoga Stable.
“I think it’s a modern facility at Saratoga that’s long overdue,” Knowlton added. “Obviously, people are going to love the air conditioning on our hot Saratoga days. I’ve been to an awful lot of race tracks around the country that have amenities like this. We’ve never had one, so now we can compete with the best, the Churchills, the Delmars, the Santa Anitas.”
Others marveled at the rooms and the views.
“This place is quite spectacular, it it not?” asked Laura Fiumano of Niskayuna.
“It’s very spectacular,” added Drew Fiumano, Laura’s husband. “It’s a huge upgrade for the track at Saratoga.”
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]