2009 is the first full summer that I spent in Saratoga as a credentialed writer, the first time I was hired as a freelancer with a regular gig, for the very pages in which this column appears. Having grown up in Saratoga, I read The Pink Sheet every summer; it was an icon, and having a byline in it was an accomplishment I couldn’t even have dreamed of.
Ten years later, I am happy that The Saratogian, The Pink Sheet, and I are all still here, along with racing at Saratoga, which carries on amid myriad changes in the last decade.
The New York Racing Association is on its fourth CEO and president since I began covering racing a decade ago. Grandstand admission has more than doubled since 2013, from $3 to $7. Two new buildings—the Walk of Fame and the 1863 Club--have been constructed. Backstretch housing has been upgraded. The state took, then relinquished, control of NYRA, just a few years after NYRA had been granted a 25-year franchise extension.
Hospitality offerings at Saratoga Race Course have been upgraded, and the success of The Post bar suggests that it deserves a permanent, open-air home, instead of a tent, a home that would complement the green repurposed barn wood of which the bar is constructed.
The Carousel has been transformed, as has been the grandstand at the top of the stretch. If you haven’t been to Saratoga in a while, you won’t recognize those old spaces…and unless you buy a premium-priced ticket, you won’t get into them, either.
Some of Saratoga’s most prized experiences have been monetized, most notably the opportunity to see the horses in the paddock. Now, more than half of paddock rail space is reserved for people who can pay for it: at a reserved picnic table, in a high-end hospitality tent, at a high-minimum table at The Post. I can’t think of another racetrack in the U.S. that so intentionally restricts viewing access to the horses, making it a privilege primarily for prosperous patrons.
It is also worth noting that when the reserved picnic table system was first introduced, the payment for the reservation was donated to Backstretch Employee Service Team. That is no longer the case.
Not that long ago, NYRA held an annual press conference in Saratoga in June for local media, previewing giveaways, horses expected to run at the meet, and noteworthy events. Executives held another press conference opening week, and the National Museum of Racing held an annual panel of trainers, jockeys, writers, and other racing people; the latter event was free and open to the public. Perhaps in a world of ubiquitous social media, such events are seen as obsolete, but they also fostered connection between “the summer people,” as we called them when I was kid, and the local community, lending a festive and welcoming note to the beginning of the season.
Gone, too, are the “Hats Off” and “Final Stretch” festivals downtown that kicked off and ended racing season with live music and other events downtown.
Closing weekend used to feature an array of activities for kids in the backyard: carnival games, a petting zoo, pony rides, face-painting, etc., and admission was free on Labor Day. I still have some of the prizes that my nephews won for me on those days, and those traditions are part of what fostered in them a love for Saratoga Race Course.
I cop to the accusation of nostalgia, and I acknowledge the need for improvements and upgrades and modernizations, many of which have been enthusiastically embraced by the track’s customers. A year-round hospitality center at the track is long overdue and I hope the 1863 Club will become as much a part of Saratoga in the fall, winter, and spring as it is in the summer (though maybe with prices that aren’t quite so steep).
It’s true, though, that Saratoga is no longer the August place to be, and that the slogan that replaced it, “the summer place to be,” is more accurate, especially given this year’s July 11 opening day. I don’t envy the state and NYRA executives who are responsible for making the decisions that will enable profitability while retaining the atmosphere and practices that make Saratoga, both the town and the track, unique among racecourses in the United States.
Ten years. It’s a long time, a decade of experiences and memories, of friendships and losses, and of gifts from a sport and a track and a town that have a hold on my heart like no other place in the world. Here’s to the next 10.
Teresa Genaro is a contributing columnist to The Pink Sheet throughout the Saratoga Racing Season. We too wish her a 'Happy Anniversary!'