A high bar was set for birthday celebrations at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
More than 33,000 people, a cake that required seven people to carry it, a $15,000 bet, a handful of proclamations and the 86th running of the Whitney Handicap were all part of the festivities that marked 150 years since the start of racing in Saratoga Springs. It all began on Aug. 3, 1863, with the start of a four-day racing meet. Saturday’s celebration was the apex of this summer’s events.
Summing up the raised stakes for the day, Saratoga Springs resident and veteran of the racetrack Stephanie Cash, 25, said, “There is an extra-special buzz in the air celebrating the birthday of racing.”
She has been getting into the spirit of things all summer long, attending events in the city hosted by the Saratoga 150 committee, including the Floral Fete Promenade on Friday night. “It’s the best summer I’ve ever had in Saratoga,” Cash said.
Socialite and philanthropist Marylou Whitney described this summer as a major success. In her box near the finish line, which also hosted actress Susan Lucci, Whitney questioned whether all of the excitement could be topped.
“Based on the crowd, I don’t know if we can take any more people,” she said with a laugh.
More people couldn’t fit in the track’s backyard, which was filled to capacity with pop-up tents, lawn chairs and picnic tables, with almost all of the spots taken during the early-morning rush to reserve space.
Holly Barcomb, 41, from the Plattsburgh area, was able to enjoy a picnic table for her first return to the track in more than two decades because of the early efforts of her boyfriend.
“My boyfriend, who is the hero, was up at 4:30 in the morning and got here at 5:20 and waited until 6:45 to make it happen,” beamed Barcomb, who had just won her fourth of five races. “He was 15th in line to get in here.”
The return to the track, which included breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and a full day of races, was made extra-special by the celebrations, she said.
One of the thousands who felt it was a special day was Derek Daye, an employee of a betting company contracted by the track. After losing all of his clothing last week in a fire that destroyed a Woodlawn Avenue row house, he made a special point to buy a suit for Saturday.
Daye wore that suit into the winner’s circle before the 10th race, the running of the Whitney Handicap, which featured a big bet by Kevin Brockley of Wilton. He was the first winner of a promotion funded by Whitney and husband John Hendrickson, who are giving five fans a chance to bet $15,000 on the feature race on a Saturday during the meet.
The money was driven to Brockley in an armored car, which traveled along the dirt of the main track. After Brockley, his wife Rachel, Whitney and Hendrickson posed for photos with the briefcase, Hendrickson popped it open at the urging of Whitney. The couple then played with the small stack of cash, which took up very little room in the briefcase, before Hendrickson pretended to count it and confirmed that all of the money was there.
While admittedly not a seasoned handicapper, Brockley said he felt confident with his bet to win on favorite Fort Larned. If his bet came in, he planned on paying off some student loans and making some home improvements. Unfortunately for him, his horse didn’t win or even finish in the top three, but he took it in stride, saying to Hendrickson, “It happens.”
The winner was Cross Traffic, a horse ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Todd Pletcher, which in hindsight seemed destined to win because its yellow colors matched the colors worn by Whitney.
But there was still some of the pink that Whitney is linked to, as Cross Traffic received a special custom-designed horse blanket made of Marylou Whitney pink roses. Work on the blanket began several weeks ago by Wilton resident Susan Lee Laing, who sewed about 500 of the unique roses onto the blanket this week.
Also specially designed for the occasion was a birthday cake made by the bakery featured on reality television show “Cake Boss.” The cake, which was a replica of the track, including a three-dimensional version of Sam the Bugler, was delicately carried a few feet by seven men from a refrigerated truck on the main track to the winner’s circle. Fans crammed in along the fence of the winner’s circle to see the cake, with many raising smartphones up into the air to snap a bit of history. The cake was to be fed to the backstretch workers at the track.
Before cutting into the cake, an extended rendition of “Happy Birthday” rang out over the track.