Not much sells Saratoga Springs like the two-day Hats Off to Saratoga Festival that marks the beginning of the summer meet at the Saratoga Race Course.
Walking down Broadway on Saturday evening, New York City residents Heidi Fichtner, 30, and Keith Murphy, 27, were soaking in the charm of the city. The busy al fresco dining, welcoming rows of open shops and old-school architecture made Fichtner wonder out loud, “Why don’t we live here?”
The couple were visiting the city for Saturday night’s Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but they were able to get a taste of the bustling Broadway before heading off. The brief experience left them wanting more, and they planned on immersing themselves in downtown this afternoon.
“It’s so cute,” Fichtner said of the city. “I love it. It’s adorable.”
Thousands took in the final night of the Hats Off celebration, which offered live music at various spots on and off Broadway, a late night of shopping, free balloons, a magician, kettle corn and a busy bar scene. The looming threat of afternoon rain disappeared in time for the start of festivities at 7 p.m., sparing people the storms that knocked out power in the area Friday night.
Ray Morris, owner of Lillian’s Restaurant on Broadway, where there was a wait for the coveted outdoor seating, said people hadn’t been deterred from coming out by the unseasonably hot weather Friday and continued to come out Saturday.
“People want to be outside … especially in Saratoga, where there are a lot of places to do it,” he said.
The restaurant was offering “extended hours,” a regular occurrence during the summer track season, when an 11 p.m. closing time on the weekends is too early for the demand, Morris said.
Shops were also getting a steady flow of customers, with many hands on Broadway filled with a new souvenir.
Because of the late-night foot traffic, Impressions of Saratoga, a go-to destination for a memento to remember any trip to Saratoga Springs, including memorabilia for the Saratoga 150 celebration, offered special attractions Friday and Saturday. On Friday, they had Greg Montgomery signing the Travers poster he did commemorating last year’s dead heat, and Saturday, authors Mike Kane and Allan Carter were signing copies of their book, “150 Years of Racing in Saratoga.”
Impressions owner Marianne Barker said the city has a special energy during the first weekend of the track, which kicked off its 145th season Friday.
“I love this early part of the season,” she said. “Everything is fresh. It’s exciting, and we’re not tired yet.”
Saratoga Springs native Sam Chabot, 28, concurred there was a buzz in the air.
“It’s like most weekends during the track season, but maybe a little bit more because it’s the first weekend,” he said.
Still wearing his dress shoes, slacks and tie from a day at the races, Chabot started his Saturday evening with a drink at Saratoga City Tavern on Caroline Street and had plans to catch up with local friends.
He added there would likely be some faces from the past.
“A lot of people like to come back because they appreciate what they grew up with,” he said.
He said the musical appearances were a special treat when he stumbled upon them, but didn’t go out of his way to find the entertainment options.
One of the popular entertainers people in pursuit of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream came across was Lyl Harper, who played Caribbean music in front of the shop’s gazebo. It was his first experience with Hats Off, although he had played the winter equivalent, the Victorian Streetwalk.
The unofficial culmination of the Hats Off celebration is this afternoon at the Saratoga Race Course, with the 22nd Annual Hat Contest, which this year will have a Victorian theme.
Registration for the event is at noon under the grandstand, and there are three different categories, including one for kids.