From the picnicking masses watching backyard televisions to the betting types lining the track rails, the Saratoga Race Course was a sea of red baseball caps Sunday afternoon.
Identical hats bearing the Saratoga Race Course logo dangled from the belt loops of hair-conscious men, slouched over youngsters’ ears and perched two or three high on the heads of true enthusiasts.
It wasn’t a merch-stand windfall, just the track’s annual ball cap giveaway day.
“It’s been a steady stream since the gates opened at 10:30,” said Janice Sivillo, who ran the main hat distribution point. “It really brought people out this year.”
One free hat came with each paid admission, but with 50,000 hats given out in just under six hours — that’s a hat every 4 seconds for the mathematicians — the term “stream” was probably an understatement.
Sivillo drives out from New York City to manage many of the track’s giveaways. She’s used to a busy day, but Sunday was busier than the usual.
Last year’s ball cap giveaway drew roughly 41,000 paid admissions. This year they had nearly 10,000 more, an increase course officials credit to the hat quality.
“I’ve been getting these hats for years,” said race enthusiast Roger Locks. “I have a collection of them back at my house, and I can tell you this is the best set of hats they’ve ever had.”
The hats were indeed of good-quality material. The stitching was tight, a striking horse and rider embroidered on the brim. They were quite a bargain for the $3 entrance fee, which led to an interesting dynamic.
Locks held five hats by their stacked brims, one each for the five times he paid for his own admission. As a horse owner himself, he knows many of the jockeys personally and gets them to sign the hats after the race.
“I have a son in Beijing,” he said. “I send one to him, and a few of my friends.” And, of course, one will go into his personal collection.
“They’re called spinners,” said Phil Stenglein of people who go through the entrance gate multiple times. “There was one gentleman who went through the line in front of us with 15 hats. Some people give them to relatives, some people sell them on eBay.”
Stenglein himself left before the races with two hats.
By the end of the day, half a dozen caps were already on the eBay auction block, going for between $2 and $30.
With some spinners buying more than a dozen hats, actual attendance wasn’t near 50,000. However, according to New York Racing Association Director of Communications Dan Silver, turnout was substantial.
“There’s no way to tell how many people actually came,” he said, “but our wagers were up 6 percent, which speaks to the race quality.”
While a few may have gotten carried away with the hats, most seemed to come out for the racing.
Megan Harris for example, while pleased by the free head wear, seemed happier about the hundreds of dollars she won on her 70 to 1 bet on Lady Utopia.
“Yeah, she’s feeling pretty good,” said her father, Dan Harris, “But the hat was good too.”
The Saratoga Race Course will hold three more giveaways over the summer: Aug. 12 features a picnic mat, Aug. 19 a pilsner glass and on Sept. 2 they’ll give away fleece blankets to help with the cold.
For more information visit www.nyra.com.