Children were hoisted on their parents’ shoulders and climbed up the fence surrounding Saratoga Race Course’s main track Sunday afternoon, but they didn’t see any thoroughbred horses.
Instead, they cheered for their favorite mascots, who loaded into the gates and sprinted a few yards in the dirt to the finish line during the sixth annual Mascot Race. The popular event took place at the course’s open house, now in its 29th year.
Local team mascots such as Rowdy the River Rat, Spike the Albany Firebird and Skidmore College’s Skids then signed autographs and greeted the cheering tots.
For one day each summer, the gates of Saratoga Race Course open for free, and the grounds are available for viewing and exploring. Various activities for children are organized, and racing fanatics can explore the venue in anticipation of the meet.
Racing begins Wednesday.
More than 20,000 people explored the grounds Sunday, said Charlie Hayward, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association.
Hayward said the event is a good trial run for the facility, a nice opportunity for
families with young children to explore the venue and a good way to welcome back racetrack regulars.
The children’s crafts section, with clowns from the Electric City Clown Alley, was one of the most crowded areas of the venue.
Kim McNamee of Schenectady was there with her mother, Marge Morgan, and niece, Akilah McNamee-Saeed, 7, both of New Jersey.
McNamee-Saeed said she was having an excellent time as she showed off her red clown nose, painted cheek and tattooed hand.
McNamee said she comes to the track once or twice a year but hadn’t been to the open house in 15 years.
Jeff and Julie Rodriguez of Queensbury and their two children, 2-year-old Abby and 6-year-old Ella, were also taking pictures with the clowns.
Jeff Rodriguez said his family frequently makes the trip to Saratoga for the races and tries to make it to the open house each year.
“It’s festive and the kids really enjoy it,” he said.
Julie Rodriguez said it was a good way to start the track season.
Ed Lewi, of the public relations firm Ed Lewi and Associates, which handles press relations for NYRA and organizes the open house, said his day started at 7 a.m. when he had to decide “whether we were in or out.”
Meteorologists were predicting severe storms for the afternoon. Event organizers moved as many activities as possible inside, including inflatable bouncy-bounces and a mini-golf course. The rain held off for most of the event, which ran until 4 p.m.
Lewi said the open house is especially exciting for those people who have never experienced the course before, and for children.
“There are so many people from Saratoga Springs that have never been to the track,” Lewi said. “And for the kids, this is their big day out because their parents may not take them during the regular meet when they just want to bet on horses.”
Besides giving people the opportunity to view the track before the meet begins, the annual open house raises about $30,000 for various charities, Lewi said.
Volunteers from various nonprofit organizations staff food booths and sell drinks. Their products are available for sale, and tables are set up all over the grounds displaying information.
Twins Elizabeth and Victoria Shamlian, 7, had never been to the track and were excited about seeing it.
Their parents, Kate and Harry Shamlian, said they decided to bring the girls Sunday because they would be able to get close to the track, see the horses and learn about racing in a more low-key environment.
Children were able to learn hands-on about racing at The Discovery Paddock.
Amy Valenti’s two children, Sarah, 4, and Justin, 6, put on brightly colored jockey shirts and helmets and were playing with the various tools used to care for horses, including horseshoes and brushes.
Valenti, of Waterford, said her family has a house in Saratoga, and they spend plenty of time at the racetrack each year. They also never miss the open house.
“It’s a lot of fun and obviously they like it,” she said, gesturing toward her children.