The Saratoga Casino Hotel was alive and buzzing on Sunday as Saratoga Raceway's 78th season kicked off with harness racing.
Skies were clear and blue and the track on Jefferson Street was smooth as drivers readied their horses in the track's back paddock for their respective races and patrons wandered outside to watch races live, and back inside once the race was over to retreat from the cold and refresh their beers or plates of pizza, both of which were being sold for $1 in an opening-day special.
Many race-watchers also sported newly-acquired free T-shirts with the opening day date emblazoned on them, also part of a promotion for opening day.
Skip Carlson, vice president for external affairs, estimated that approximately 1,500 patrons watched the races Sunday, and about 8,000 people were on site across all the hotel's areas, including the casino.
Couples, groups and diehard patrons come to opening days from up to 70 miles away, according to raceway surveying, Carlson said. Some patrons return annually for the opening day, he said.
"It's tradition," Carlson said.
Harness track racing is a little different than what most would expect to see in a horse race.
Instead of a jockey riding horseback during the race, harness-style racing has the driver seated in a two-wheel cart pulled by the horse around the track.
Though track activity spans more than seven decades, winter racing at Saratoga is a bit more recent. The first time harness racing began winter operations was in 1987, said Carlson.
Since then, drivers have been racing their horses largely in sunny or snowy weather, and racing enthusiasts still turn out to see the sights.
"Our guys are tough," Carlson said.
Frank Coppola Jr., a driver at the raceway for the past 40 years, was gearing up for the first of eight races on Sunday about 12:30 p.m. Coppola Jr., 59, has approximately 5,800 harness track wins under his belt. On the opening day, Coppola was trying to maintain a competitive and social balance, making the rounds with friends he hadn't seen for months.
"I've just been going around and reconnecting with everyone I drive for," said Coppola in the paddock. For Coppola, the sunny skies and the good conditions of the track heightened his anticipation about the season's opening day.
"For me, it's about getting back in there. It's going to be a great opening day," Coppola said.
Mike Pozefsky, a longtime horse owner, was stationed in the track's mezzanine area watching the races. For him, missing opening day is not an option.
"We come back because we love the game and the horses," said Pozefsky, who lives in Saratoga and had two horses racing on Sunday.
Many factors play a role in keeping him, and other racing enthusiasts coming back each year, Pozefsky said, including that the track is well maintained, a local gem and steeped in harness-racing history.
The actual harness racing, Pozefsky said, is interesting enough to keep people engaged.
On opening day especially, horses which have not raced during the break compete against horses who have been running elsewhere since the last Saratoga season, giving the event added intrigue.
The harness track is just one stop of many, Pozefsky noted, that attract tourists, day-trippers and locals to a city that has no shortage of marvels.
"Saratoga's always had so much to offer," Pozefsky said.