The Saratoga Summer
Some of us are morning people. I am not.
So the day I was poked, prodded, begged and finally dragged to breakfast early one morning at Saratoga Race Course, I was fully prepared to play the role of grumpy breakfast companion. That is, until the coffee hit my bloodstream and I began to take in my surroundings.
On this particular day, an early morning fog lifted slowly off the hoof-dotted dirt track, which appears golden in the soft blue and pink light of morning.
Pleasant background music was provided by the crescendoing and then fading thud-thud-thud of hooves on dirt, coffee cups clinking with saucers, forks tapping plates, the mellow chatter that starts a day, a woman’s voice providing commentary over speakers. During pauses in conversation, your eyes can’t help but linger on the beautiful horses walking, trotting and running by. They’re in for a big day, you think, forgetting about your own for just a moment.
Breakfast at the track is a long-standing tradition for racing fans and Saratoga locals. For some, it’s purely sustenance, a good start to a long day at the races. For truly devoted racing fans, it’s a great opportunity to prepare for a day of betting. For others, it’s about the experience and atmosphere.
A breakfast buffet is served on the porch of the clubhouse overlooking the main track each racing day from 7 to 9:30 a.m. Admission is free (except on Travers Day), but the breakfast itself is $17.95 for adults and $9.95 for children ages 3 to 12, plus tax and gratuity.
Many people bring their own breakfast, from home or local establishments or the Dunkin’ Donuts on site, and eat from one of the benches at the rail.
A trackside parking spot is $12 this year, but is fully refundable as long as you leave by 10 a.m. (except on Travers Day). Seating is first-come, first-served. Parties of 20 or more should call ahead at 1-888-285-5961. The track is cleared after the breakfast program and you’ll need to pay admission to re-enter for the afternoon races.
Serious racing fans can be found in the box seats upstairs, where former exercise rider Mary Ryan provides commentary on the morning workouts, bits of history and information on the day’s races or giveaways.
“Nowadays, more people sit up here than downstairs for the breakfast program,” Ryan said. “In order to watch the horses and listen to me, I think you need to be up here.”
Her commentary is muffled for those seated in the downstairs porch area, but in the box seats, it’s clear as she stands nearby with a microphone overlooking the finish line, informing the crowd when she spots a particular horse by the length of its tail or the towel under its saddle.
“It’s informative because I give them tips that might help them later in the day,” she said after her morning commentary. “Let’s say a horse is overly sweaty, perspiring a lot. I’ll let them know that’s not a good sign, and it helps them choose a horse later. I’ll point out things they can pick up, like how he carries his head. It’s sort of like a primer for the day.”
And if you think nothing interesting happens during the morning workout, ask Ryan about the summer of 1996. The New York Racing Association had announced that famous thoroughbred Cigar would have its morning workout one day early at 6 a.m., instead of 7.
“We had 5,000 people that morning,” she said. “Five thousand people can turn out at 6 a.m. because of the attraction of a star player.”
A popular component of the breakfast program is the free walking tour of the track’s historic backstretch and stable area, available every race day except Labor Day. A tram leaves the main clubhouse entrance at 7:30 a.m. to take visitors to the stable area, with additional trams departing every 15 minutes.
Tours are about 45 minutes. The most popular is the last one, which leaves at 9 a.m. People have been turned away, so arrive early to guarantee a spot.