As a line of eager fans snaked around the main entrance of the Saratoga Race Course on opening day morning, Tony Grecco was executing a covert operation.
With a borrowed media pass, the local man entered the grounds shortly before the gates were due to open at 7 a.m. Armed with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and a cooler, he waited near the Union Avenue gates until the first wave of several hundred fans came barreling in to claim one of the highly coveted picnic tables dotting the track’s backyard.
“Once they opened the gates, I zoomed over and put my tablecloth down,” he said triumphantly.
With his spot claimed and his coolers in place, Grecco was free to venture home for a bit until his crew arrived shortly before noon. Grabbing the same table is a tradition for Grecco, the general manager of the Log Jam Restaurant in Lake George — one he’s crafted over the course of 30 consecutive opening days at the track.
Attending opening day is also a tradition for Grecco — one that his son 24-year-old son Anthony has carried on his entire life. It’s also a tradition Grecco’s spread to his restaurant’s staff — many joining him to celebrate the first day of thoroughbred racing at the track.
“There’s nothing like Saratoga,” he beamed.
The 146th racing meet touched off with a bang Friday. With blue skies and a cool breeze, more than 25,000 fans turned out to usher in the 40-day meet, a 17 percent increase over the 2013 meet, according to figures provided by the New York Racing Association.
“Today’s great weather, coupled with record season-pass sales and the new amenities in place throughout this historic race course, is a great start to the 2014 Saratoga meet,” said Chris Kay, president and chief executive officer of NYRA.
Handle at the track was down despite the increased attendance. On-track handle for the 10-race card came in at $2.84 million — a decrease from the $3.33 million registered in 2013. All-sources handle came in at $14.9 million for opening day, which was also down from the $15.59 million during the previous year.
The figures, however, didn’t seem to faze fans returning to the track. Most were more focused on the revelry of opening day than the money exchanging hands at the gate or parimutuel windows.
For many diehard fans, opening day is a hallowed tradition passed from one generation to the next. Kathy Lynch of Clifton Park recalls coming to the track with her father when she was a child.
“We’d look forward to it every year,” she recalled from her seat in the backyard.
On Friday, she brought her 20-year-old son, Patrick, who couldn’t remember an opening day that he missed. He said the essence of cigar, the smell of beer and the sound of the starting gate echoing through the sprawling grounds are all triggers for the fond memories he’s had over the years.
“That’s how you know it’s summer,” he said.
There was also the other side of opening day. Thousands of workers toiled amid the throngs of fans in search of vittles or a cold beer.
Or in Alex Lareau’s case, a hot plate of poutines. The operator of the Shirley’s Restaurant booth at the track had plenty of customers, but was short one frier — something that caused a degree of angst over his top seller of cheese curds-and-gravy-slathered french fries.
“It’s pretty intense right now,” he confessed.
Still, he anticipated hammering through 75 pounds of curds and 450 pounds of fries by the end of the last race.
Fans returning this year readily acknowledged some of the $1.9 million in improvements the New York Racing Association made over the off-season, including the 750 flat-screen high-definition televisions installed in the backyard and an improved sound system that carried beloved announcer Tom Durkin’s voice with a greater degree of clarity. Yet the improvements took a back seat to the celebratory mood many expressed during their first day back — a positive attitude some exuded even when their wagers weren’t successful.
“The next-best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing,” beamed Jeff LeVan of Maryland, after losing bets during the first two races.
Granted, some of the mirth could be attributed to the liberal imbibing that started for many long before the 1 p.m. post time for the first race. Still, opening day at the track is a sort of homecoming — one that is more about soaking in the unique atmosphere of the historic track and less about tippling.
“I just love being around all the people,” said Jordan Dyer of Lake George, who was spending his 24th birthday in the backyard. “I couldn’t care less about the betting — especially since I’m 0-for-5 today.”
Steve Singley of Ballston Lake was of similar mind. For him, opening day at the track is the heartbeat that keeps Saratoga Springs vibrant — a place unique in its culture and atmosphere.
“And besides, who doesn’t want to be part of a party?” he said.