The Saratoga Springs thoroughbred racing season unofficially began on Saturday.
The official meet doesn’t start for almost 50 days and most of the country was drinking to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but in a city with about 150 years of horse racing history, the running of the Kentucky Derby was the focus of attention.
Nowhere was this frenzy and excitement more publicly visible than at Siro’s Restaurant, a popular spot during the summer just outside the gates of the Saratoga Race Course. The watering hole displayed the signs of the summer racing season on Saturday afternoon, with parking spots hard to find, loud music, a splattering of men in sport coats and even a few ladies in dresses and hats.
“It is the unofficial, but official, kick off to summer,” said Samantha Kercull, of Saratoga Springs, who without prompting spouted the “health, history and horses” mantra of the city. The 26-year-old was watching the race at Siro’s with friends for her second time.
She said the appeal of the spot, which features covered outdoor seating and multiple open bars, is the atmosphere, music and cocktails.
As to what holiday dominated the day, without missing a beat, Kercull exclaimed, “Derby Day.”
The race was also being celebrated at private parties throughout the city. Families and friends huddled around high-definition televisions in their living rooms, or outdoors in at least one rare case, and rooted on their picks.
For 78-year-old Ralph Wenzel, who attended a party hosted by his daughter, he studied the Racing Form for previous performances of horses before driving a few blocks to the Saratoga Casino and Raceway to place his bets.
He explained that he doesn’t need a mint julep or anything special to celebrate the race, which he started watching on a black-and-white television with his dad many years ago in Troy. All he needs are friends, family and beer to enjoy the derby. A prime seat for the race, a chair with a clear angle at the television, is not something Wenzel mentioned, but it clearly helped him provide a sporadic narration of the race.
“He’s flying,” he exclaimed about the pace started by eventual second-place finisher “Bodemeister.” Then a long silence, as the room filled with the announcer’s voice and a random sample of cries from the rest of the room, before Wenzel wisely noted, “They’ve got a long way to go.”
When it’s all said and done, all he could say is, “wow.” His five-horse exacta-box and two side bets failed to win him anything.
In the long run, though, that might not matter. He acknowledged he’s never had a really good win in the derby during his betting life and said you ultimately reminisce more about the bets you lose. Plus, as a regular at the Saratoga Race Course, there will be many more chances this summer.
Wenzel’s son-in-law and grandson, 22-year-old Ralph Yusavage, both had winning bets on “I’ll Have Another.”
At first Yusavage wasn’t sure if the proceeds from that bet would cover how much he spent on all his bets combined. “More than I’d like to say,” is how he described the amount he wagered on a race, which he described earlier as being a “big betting question mark.”
Ultimately, the payout on his one winner covered his handful of losing tickets.