Two-year-old Ryleigh Shaw sat on Mike Sullivan’s shoulders Sunday, her strawberry blonde curls bouncing as she waved at her favorite contender in the noon race at Saratoga Race Course.
“Hi, Twinkle!” the little Ballston Spa resident called, as the racers readied themselves in the starting gate. It was a tight squeeze for some of them, since the gate was made to accommodate thoroughbred horses, not the crew that took to the track for this race — a bear, a moose, a doughnut and a phantom, to name just a few.
The racers were mascots from local businesses and sports teams, and the bulky bunch was running on foot as part of the 32nd Annual Open House at Saratoga Race Course. The racing meet officially begins Friday and concludes Sept. 3.
Racing is held every day of the week except Tuesday during the 40-day meet. The first post time is 1 p.m. except on Party at the Spa days, July 27 and Aug. 31, when the first post time is 2:30 p.m.; Travers Day, Aug. 25, when the first post is 11:35 a.m.; and on Sept. 3, when first post time is 12:30 p.m.
The Race Course was chock full of families Sunday, there to enjoy a day of games, live music, pony rides, behind-the-scenes tours, food, handicapping seminars and non-wagering horse racing.
The free event, which according to organizers raises nearly $15,000 every year through food and beverage sales, supports community organizations including the Knights of Columbus, Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York, Racing City Chorus and a host of others.
On the parklike grounds, the only jockeys to be seen averaged under 4 feet tall. They wore flip-flops, face paint, orange “I rode a pony today” stickers and huge smiles as they rode on patient ponies that plodded in a large loop on the grass.
“You did great!” 5-year-old Noah Seus of Long Island told his sister Brooke, 6, as she dismounted and traded a riding helmet for a purple, leopard-print hat.
The line of eager riders stretched long in the shade of the tall pines.
A short distance away, baby goats battled for the attention of 2-year-old Harrison Brand of Clifton Park, whose small hand was full of brown pellets his mom, Maria, had purchased from a dispenser that looked like a gum ball machine.
The boy stretched out his hand tentatively and squealed in delight as three fuzzy noses poked through the metal fencing and three red tongues snatched the food from his hand.
The box turtle that kids could pet during The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology’s Leaping Lizards and Rocking Reptiles show wasn’t as enthusiastic as the goats were, but the children who attended the presentation seemed pleased to have a chance to touch its smooth shell and scaly legs.
Near the empty but still scenic dirt track, Mei Zhou of Guilderland was taking snapshots of her family. It was their first time there.
“We have two relatives from China who are spending their summertime with us and we thought this was going to be a very meaningful event for them,” she said.
She commented on how lovely the landscaping was, pointing to some well-manicured bushes in the center of the track. Looking back at the grandstand, the view was scenic as well. Red geraniums, white petunias and green ivy spilled from flower boxes attached to the railings.
Not long after Zhou’s photo session, the track came to life with the pounding of hooves as the Islip Horsemen’s Association Long Island Drill Team performed intricately choreographed moves for the crowd. More than a dozen riders carried American flags while their horses pranced in formation.
Later in the day, a taste of horse racing was offered, courtesy of the National Steeplechase Association. Attendees could root for their favorite steed, but no betting was allowed. The four hurdle races and one turf race will serve as qualifiers for the regular Saratoga meet.
Since there was no wagering Sunday, patrons instead spent their cash on food.
In one area was a stretch of booths that sold Saratoga County food products.
Leslie Paddock, who staffed the Saratoga Peanut Butter Company table, recommended the Trifecta spread that was inspired by the racetrack.
“It’s a delicacy. It’s almond with dark chocolate and cherries,” she said, holding out a pretzel stick dripping with the dark brown concoction.
One booth down, Brittnay Peek and Mike Fitzgerald were selling fudge, chocolate-covered strawberries and chocolate-covered bacon made by Saratoga Sweets. The bacon, with its melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate coating and smoky, chewy, salty finish, is a big seller, Fitzgerald said.