SARATOGA SPRINGS — Thousands of people head to Saratoga Race Course throughout the summer, as horses run five days a week at the “summer place to be.”
Watching — and betting on — the races is a summer staple in the Capital Region, but the time between races and circumstances around venturing to the Spa City can be the most memorable part of the experience for many track-goers.
More than 780,00 fans have attended races this summer through last weekend, a figure that represents a 10% increase from last year at the same point. More than 44,500 people attended last year’s Travers Stakes day, and that number could grow higher Saturday for this year’s edition of the meet’s biggest race.
Throughout this summer, The Gazette asked fans at the historic race course why they make the trip to Saratoga Race Course.
The Hayden family of Burnt Hills takes advantage of their close proximity to the track and surrounding area.
“We walked around Saratoga, we went to the Yaddo gardens, we went to see Josh Groban last night at SPAC,” Derek Hayden said. “It’s just a local thing to do in the summertime. We’re trying to make an afternoon of it.”
Hayden brought his daughter, Mary, son, Matthew, and wife, Cathy, to the rail for a few races.
Any trip to Saratoga includes a story from previous outings — for Hayden, those occurred almost daily.
“I used to work here as a teen,” he said. “I swept losing tickets up there [pointing to the grandstand]. I guarded the stakes barn down there [pointing across the track]. It was humbling, and I will never forget that. I think every kid should have to do that.”
The Barrett family took up several tables arranged under a large rectangular tent near the paddock during their visit, part of an annual family reunion for the past 25 years.
“I love horses. I used to have my own horse as a teenager,” said Connie Barrett of Melrose.
Gage Barrett, 8, was making his first visit to the track.
“I want to see the horses,” he said. “I’ve ridden a couple of horses before and I want to watch them race.”
Rick Barrett, the group’s elder statesman, provided instruction for the younger attendees on how to select a spot as soon as the gates opened at 7 a.m. on Whitney Day. The group included families from Glens Falls and Voorheesville.
“Someplace near a big screen [for viewing races], shade, easy access to betting windows and a close walk to the track,” said the Cohoes resident.
A group of three Bay State friends — including Doug Prince of Clinton, Massachusetts — has made the trip for the past decade. The trio spends four consecutive days in Saratoga and at the track. They handicap the races and bet each one as a group.
“If we hit a trifecta, we all benefit,” said Billy Comaskey of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. “Two years ago we had a good trip and went back home with $1,000 in our pockets.”
MAKING ‘OUR DONATION’
For the past 50 years, Al Dechillo of Staten Island has made Saratoga Race Course a summer destination.
“We started with two guys. It got to a point where it was 20 guys. Now, we’re down to six or seven,” Dechillo said. “We bring sandwiches, drinks and beers, and we come for a good time. We come for three days, meet each other, lose our money, make our donation. It’s like a charity for us.”
The men arrive on a Wednesday and leave Saturday morning.
“We know the weekends are really crowded, and the wives want us back for the weekend to take them to dinner,” Dechillo said with a laugh.
Robert Weiner traveled from Germany and joined his family at Saratoga Race Course.
“I have six brothers and I’m here with three of them, my nieces, nephew and my godchildren,” said Weiner, who was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1983 while stationed in Germany and remained there. “I’m here for the excitement. I’m here for the fun.”
BEST OF THE BEST
Vince Dallesandro sat with his wife, Elaine, in their traditional spot at the race course in the shade along a walkway behind the Union Avenue gate. They’ve traveled annually from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to the Spa for the past 30 years.
“I’m a longtime horse player. I have been since I was a teenager, so this is a special place,” Dallesandro said. “I’ve been to racetracks all over the country, but for a horseplayer this is nirvana.”
COUNTING THE DAYS
Ryan Merlone of Fairfield, Connecticut, and his group of friends have attended a big race together for the past 15 years.
“It’s a day we look forward to and we count down the days from when we leave to when we come back here,” Merlone said. “It’s one of our favorite days of the year.”
This year’s trip landed on Whitney Day.
“It’s usually for the Travers, but it took second place this year because we have another event to attend. We get a place where usually it’s walking distance to the track,” Merlone said. “We set up here, do a whole camp day out here, have some beers, some laughs and watch the horses run. You can’t beat it.”
TOP OF THE STRETCH
“We used to stay down at the start-finish line, and one time we went for a walk and came up here,” Bill Mooney, of Swansea, Massachusetts, said from a table underneath a tent at the top of the stretch. “You can actually hear the jockeys and the horses come around. This is the best spot to be, I think, on the track.”
His cousin, Irene Torregrossa of Charleston, Rhode Island, was delighted during her first trip to Saratoga Race Course.
“My cousins have been talking about this for 18 years, saying you have to show up,” Torregrossa said.
A FUTURE BRIDE’S PLACE TO BE
Katelyn Parah of Georgia, Vermont, was the honoree at a picnic table filled with charcuterie boards and surrounded by bridesmaids celebrating her upcoming wedding in October.
“We were trying to decide between a couple of places to come for the weekend, and we thought Saratoga would be fun because it’s a smaller city and having an event to do like this for the whole weekend would be nice,” Parah, a mental health counselor, said. “It’s really interesting. There is a whole subculture that I’ve never seen or been exposed to, so I’m just taking it all in.
“But it’s definitely interesting and fun.”
SECOND TIME, LONG TIME
It’s been more than a decade since Nick Gerardi of Worcester, Massachusetts, spent a day at the race course.
“I love horses, I love gambling, I love partying with my friends,” Gerardi said. “I’m coming back every year now.”
Gerardi enjoyed the friendly atmosphere around the picnic tables behind the grandstand.
“Hanging out with all the strangers here,” Gerardi said. “You make friends with everyone. It’s a good time.”
LONGTIME SUMMER STOP
Anna Cortese of Hudson Falls grew up with an affinity for Saratoga Race Course.
“My father [Tony Cortese] grew up in Saratoga, so growing up we came here a lot,” she said from the picnic area near the Big Red Spring with a group of friends from Hudson, Mayfield and Orange County. “My father even worked here when he was a boy, and when he retired he was a cashier here.”
WORK, THEN FUN
The home of Deborah Coyle, of Saratoga Springs, is a gathering place for her family members each summer as they visit from Boston. She puts them to work first, then is along for the ride for the rest of the week.
“We came to Debbie’s house to cut down some trees in her backyard,” Karl Dreyer, of Boston, said. “The track becomes a part of the week, too.”
The group has gathered at the top of the stretch near the rail for the past 25 years as part of Coyle’s birthday celebration during the week.
“I’m from Boston but my family lives here in Schenectady and Saratoga, so I came to visit my family for the week,” Lisa Finnegan said. “Last night we went to the Fasig-Tipton sale. It was awesome, amazing.”
Finnegan noted the changes at the track.
“This year I noticed the addition to the paddock restaurant area. I love it,” she said. “It’s an iconic building that is looking out at all the horses.”
A FAN FOR DECADES
Few things could keep Mike Lisky Jr. of Schenectady away from the track each summer.
“I have been coming here since I was 11 with my dad,” the 75-year-old said. “We live in Schenectady, and I haven’t missed a season except for the four years I was in the service.”
BUILDING A TRADITION
A trio of friends with ties to Syracuse took advantage of new local Lauren Capozzi’s knowledge of Saratoga Race Course to meet up once again.
“My boyfriend and I moved her from Syracuse two years ago,” Capozzi said. “We love it here. We love the races. It’s a girls’ weekend but the guys are here, too.”
Caroline Webb lived in Clifton Park from 2012-16, and got engaged in Saratoga Springs before moving to Syracuse. She returned with her children, 3-year old Evelyn and 1-year-old Mackenzie.
“[Evelyn] loves horses, so we are here to show her Saratoga for the first time,” Webb said. “Since the pandemic, we didn’t really venture out for about two years.”
And Webb missed last year’s gathering — she was busy giving birth to Mackenzie that weekend.
“We would love to do this annually,” Webb said. “We all planned on coming, but [Mackenzie] was early so we didn’t make it. I definitely think this will be a yearly thing.”
ENJOYING THE BIG DAYS
Big races like the Whitney Stakes earlier in the meet were a draw for out-of-town groups.
“Whitney or Travers, either one we come to,” said Stephen Zadroga of Lancaster, Massachusetts. “I don’t like crowds, but I don’t mind the crowds here.”
‘ALWAYS WITH US’
A conversation with John Balme of North Providence, Rhode Island, was entertaining and peppered with laughs from his group before a pause for a moment to remember one member who no longer makes the trip.
Balme took time to recall Ann Rodriguez who died in March 2021. She had last made the trip to Saratoga Race Course in 2019, and Balme recalled how the crew always “had more fun on the ride up” than anything else.
Looking over at a blue-brimmed hat resting on a picnic table, Balme’s voiced cracked as he remembered that final trip all together in 2019 to Saratoga Springs.
“That’s her hat,” Balme said. “She’s always with us.”