Nearly 10 years ago to the day, John Hendrickson was looking up at the sky and wondering if Saratoga Race Course was about to get struck by a tornado.
With a crowd of more than 48,000 on hand, the skies had darkened to the point where the track had to be illuminated before the 135th running of the Travers Stakes. Birdstone, a horse owned by Hendrickson and wife Marylou Whitney, was at the gate, registering odds of winning the race at 9-2.
“There was that weather that looked like something out of the Wizard of Oz,” Hendrickson recalled Friday.
And then the race went off. Birdstone, the unlikely winner of the Belmont Stakes earlier that summer, pulled ahead of stablemate The Cliff’s Edge to land a 21⁄2-length victory — the first ever by one of the prominent couple’s horses in the Travers.
Today, Whitney and Hendrickson are hoping history repeats itself — sans the ominous downpour — with their horse, Viva Majorca, running in the 145th Travers Stakes. The thoroughbred trained by Ian Wilkes is a longshot to win at 20-1, but that doesn’t diminish any of the excitement for Hendrickson and Whitney.
“Even if you hit the board, you know you have a good horse,” he said.
The purse for the Grade I Travers this year was increased by $250,000 to $1.25 million.
Sometimes called the fourth leg of the Triple Crown, the Travers brings 40,000 to 60,000 people to the city. Many consider it the pinnacle of the racing season and a point where the action in the Spa City’s downtown reaches a fever pitch.
Hotels in the city proper are booked solid, and dinner reservations are harder to come by than a trifecta win at the track. Many restaurants don’t even take reservations on Travers Day, the unofficial busiest day of the summer meet.
“It’s the highlight of the summer season at the race course, and it certainly is a signature event,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
With a forecast of 75 degree temperatures and partly cloudy skies, this year’s Travers is expected to be a banner day for business. For Todd Garafano, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, the big day at the track is an even bigger day to introduce newcomers to all the city has to offer.
“It’s huge, to see Saratoga at its height,” he said. “It’s a ‘wow’ factor, and it leads to repeat visits.”
Of course, the Travers isn’t the only weekend event. At the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra will close out its season with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a performance that includes live cannons, a military encampment in period costume, and fireworks.
SPAC’s season continues Sunday with the country rock Zac Brown Band, which typically entertains sell-out performances.
Sunday also happens to be one of the best days of the year for downtown retailers. Shimkus said the crowds that revel in the festive post-Travers atmosphere Saturday typically hit downtown the following morning and afternoon.
It’s also a big weekend for law enforcement. City police will be out in force from the time the race lets out early Saturday evening until last call at the bars during the pre-dawn hours Sunday.
Despite the city more than doubling in size, the crowds are generally well-behaved. City police Lt. Robert Jillson said the period immediately after the Travers can sometimes get a little hectic as thousands flood from the track to popular restaurants and bars, but generally there aren’t any serious problems.
“They party, they have a good time,” he said.“We usually hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”