While hundreds of people at Saratoga Race Course are edging for position, jumping over coolers and sprinting across the backyard on the morning of the Travers to secure a picnic table, the winners of a lottery next week will be able to sleep in with the knowledge they have a reserved table.
For the fourth year in a row, the New York Racing Association is accepting reservations for 50 of the approximately 500 picnic tables in the backyard. Reservations are awarded as part of a lottery system, with 50 entrants chosen at random and lucky winners required to pay $100, which benefits the Backstretch Education Fund.
With a reservation, fans can just stroll into the track anytime before noon Aug. 24 and their table will be safe.
For everyone else, picnic tables will be up for grabs starting at 7 a.m., when gates open and a sea of early risers flood into the track. Fans will wait hours in line, in what has become a yearly tradition or fun competitive sport for some. On opening day this year, the first people in line at the Union Avenue entrance to the track arrived around 3 a.m. It’s almost as competitive on a regular weekend of the meet, with fans needing to arrive by 6:30 a.m. to secure a good picnic table.
Demand could even be higher than normal, as Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice are both scheduled to square off in the 144th running of the Travers.
NYRA Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Rodnell Workman said the reservation system has been a popular offering in the past, and this year, more than 150 inquiries about the reserved tables were made at the first hint it would be offered again this year.
He added that the “mad dash” for picnic tables represents a big part of the race course’s history, so the lottery system represented a fun twist on that.
The backyard of the track ultimately serves as home to most fans during the meet, as the grandstand and clubhouse only hold about 6,500 people. On a day like Travers Day, well more than 15,000 people will fill the backyard, some lucky enough to have picnic tables, while others bring in popup tents or lawn chairs or just float around. Most of the people in the backyard never even head to the rail to watch the races, choosing instead to gather around communal televisions to enjoy the races that are happening a few hundred yards away.
Entries in the contest, which will be open until Aug. 13 at 5 p.m., can be made at the NYRA website. Winners will be notified they were selected by email and have three days to pay the $100 to make their reservation.
The beneficiary of the funds raised by the reservations, the Backstretch Education Fund, provides educational opportunities to backstretch workers and, in conjunction with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, it offers access to vocational training, groom development and English as a second language classes.
“We’re always looking for ways to contribute to the backstretch,” Workman said.
The reservation cost does not include the price of general admission, which is $3. Tables can be claimed between 7 a.m. and noon by going to the reserved seating office at Gate A. The tables will be cordoned off in a reserved area by the Paddock and Big Red Spring, where popup tents and additional chairs will not be permitted.
For information about the reservation process and additional rules, go to www.nyra.com.