The holidays started on Friday in Saratoga Springs.
“Merry Christmas!” Bob Faragaon shouted above the hustle and bustle of the backyard at the Saratoga Race Course shortly after 7 a.m. The Schenectady resident and hundreds of other early risers had stormed into the grounds minutes earlier to secure picnic tables for the opening day of races.
After laying out some of his supplies, which along with a tablecloth is how people reserve picnic tables, Faragon popped open a bottle of champagne and took a big sip from the bottle. Because it was still morning, he then mixed the champagne with orange juice in a glass. “It’s a ritual every year,” he said, noting that the number of bottles has grown each year.
Five hours later, the first race of the 145th meet at Saratoga Race Course was off, with the call led by track announcer Tom Durkin and fans from all over the course chiming in.
The roar of the first race was a little surprising to new New York Racing Association CEO Chris Kay, who was attending the races for the first time and said he was having a great time.
When socialite and philanthropist Marylou Whitney heard that Kay was caught off guard by the noise, she warned, “Wait until you hear it on Travers [Day].”
Whitney was in her normal finery, wearing a rose-colored hat, pearls around her neck and wrists and a sleeveless floral dress, as she held court over her annual luncheon at the second-floor Carousel restaurant. Attendees this year included former Gov. George Pataki, former state Sen. Joe Bruno, Ron and Michele Riggi, Sackatoga Stable operating manager Jack Knowlton and former society columnist Jeannette Jordan.
Temperatures in the high 90s didn’t bother Whitney.
“At Saratoga, I don’t care about the heat, as long as I’m here, the people are here and the horses are here,” she said.
In the backyard, 26-year-old Sean Hughes of Saratoga Springs had a simple formula for keeping cool. He said it was sunglasses, a golf shirt and Rolling Rock beer.
This plan was echoed by John Murray of Albany, who stormed the Union Avenue gates of the track at 7 a.m. after arriving at 3 a.m. “We have a lot of coolers full of alcohol, Gatorade, all that good stuff,” he said.
In anticipation of the heat, NYRA took extra precautions with the horses, including hosing down the animals and using multiple veterinarians to monitor their well-being. They had planned on selling bags of ice, but that was scrapped and bags were given away at the Shake Shack and at two different locations in the backyard.
People also found relief with the well-chilled options at the Ben & Jerry’s tent outside the Carousel, where scooper Jay Morgese said early in the day, “They’ve been coming in pretty steady.”
For the most part, people didn’t seem to be bothered by the warm weather and simply took appropriate actions, whether it was shedding layers or Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson, playfully putting an ice pack on the back of people’s necks.
Saratoga Springs resident Tony Enders, 25, said he was just glad it wasn’t raining like on so many recent opening days.
It’s hard to tell how the buzz around the Saratoga 150 celebration — which commemorates the start of racing 150 years ago in Saratoga Springs — affected attendance, but signs of the event were prevalent everywhere. Fans entering the Nelson Avenue gate walked past a starting gate decorated with the red and yellow Saratoga 150 logo, and tourists routinely stopped by the commemorative Saratoga 150 horse sculpture to post for a picture.
Dave Trzaskos of Saratoga Springs even wore a Saratoga 150 shirt that was a Father’s Day gift. “No better place to wear it than at the track,” he said.
This was the start of the first meet at Saratoga under the new NYRA board, which became state-controlled last fall.
Murray said who runs the track doesn’t affect his enjoyment. “We let them handle that,” he said. “We just come out there to have some fun and try to win some money.”
Frank Drew of Connecticut said the only changes he cared about were ones that affected his day at the track. Waiting to charge through the Nelson Avenue entrance of the track around 6:30 a.m., he noticed a yellow food truck that was new to him and located just a few feet from three tables he planned on reserving.
Aside from new food vendors and different logos, there didn’t appear to be any major changes in the fan experience, which was fine with most of the fans, who don’t want to mess with success.
Most fans, like Drew, can’t even articulate why they love Saratoga Race Course and opening day. Explaining why he arrived at the track at 5 a.m. on Friday and plans on attending 35 days of the 40-day meet, he said, “It’s Saratoga. It’s that simple.”