Nearly 50,000 people flocked to Saratoga Race Course on Saturday for the 148th Travers Stakes, also known as the “Midsummer Derby,” which is regarded as the crown jewel of the horse racing season at the 154-year-old track.
Both trackside and in the picnic area, the race track was alive Saturday with everything that keeps the masses coming back year after year. Women sporting giant hats strutted alongside nattily dressed men smoking cigars as jockeys and thoroughbreds traversed the horse path.
At trackside during every race, just as the horses enter the final stretch, a palpable spike in excitement can be felt and heard, as those who bet on horses in the lead mentally and vocally willed their champions to finish first.
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The track apron was jam-packed — 25 people deep in some places — 15 minutes before the Travers race was set to begin. West Coast, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, won the Travers by over three lengths.
Official paid attendance was 47,725, with some track devotees camping overnight to secure prime picnic spots Saturday morning.
Butch and Kyle Malloy of Savoy, Mass., arrived at midnight on Friday, camping out on the sidewalk in front of the track to be one of the first through the gates. They were sixth in line, said Kyle Malloy.
“You have to make sure you get a table,” said Butch Malloy, Kyle’s father.
The Malloys were joined by other family members later in the day, and said they’ve been coming to Travers for the last eight years as a family. Their tradition extends to light-hearted bickering about which horses will win their races.
“The bigger the family argument the better the bet,” laughed Kyle Malloy.
His sister, Roxanne Malloy, likes to bet on horses that were written off by her dad and brother.
“Just so I can say ‘I told you so’ when they win,” she said.
Butch Malloy added that his family celebrates birthdays and other special occasions at the track, attending roughly eight race days per season.
“We try to make the big ones, we always come opening day, Alabama Day and the Whitney,” said Butch Malloy.
Kyle Malloy said the track suffered logistical and technical issues the morning of Travers, with a blocked access point and faulty turnstiles and ticket readers.
“Coming in one of the gates was locked up so a lot of people were yelling,” said Kyle Malloy. “I actually jumped the turnstile, I didn’t even scan my ticket. They told us if scanning our ticket didn’t work just to go over it.”
Those issues aside, however, the Malloys said they were having a wonderful day.
“It’s a family tradition,” said Butch Malloy.
Sartorial ensembles are a major part of any race day, but especially at major events like Travers. Many men sported colorful and tailored suits while many of the women wore bright sundresses and wide-brimmed hats.
Wildly ornate hats — of the kind that can only be found trackside — were also in abundance Saturday.
Lori Heitzman sported a purple fascinator-style hat while her friend, Christine Auld, wore a pink an extravagant pink number she named “Tiffany.”
“I think it’s fun,” said Heitzman of the spectacle that is Travers Day. “The people watching is probably the best part.”
Auld agreed, and said the track is a place where flamboyant style choices are abundant and appreciated.
“You can’t really go anywhere else and wear hats like these,” said Auld.
Heitzman, who lives in New Jersey, as does Auld, said her uncle owns a home in the area and that she’s been coming to the track since she was a kid.
“It’s just tradition at this point,” she said. “It’s part of growing up and keeping growing up.”
One of the more ostentatiously dressed attendees at Travers on Saturday was Michael Freez, who sported a mock-jockey outfit complete with a faux jockey helmet, riding boots and jersey, and a number patch on his right arm. Jockey goggles and a riding crop rounded out the ensemble.
“I love the attention,” said Freez, who joked that he’s competing in the 14th race of the day, despite there only being 13 scheduled. “Some people tell me I’m too fat to be a jockey, which I totally understand. I feel sorry for the horse — I get it.”
Freez said he only bets on horses 2 and 8 because 28 was his football jersey number when he was in seventh grade.
“I’ve bet that combo for the last 35 years every time I go to the track. It’s horrible, I’ve lost thousands,” he laughed.