With no big hat and no notion of what a day at the races entailed, I headed to Penn bright and early to board a train to America’s oldest sporting venue.
“The perfect city escape,” I was promised by the man standing behind me in line for the Amtrak to Saratoga Springs. He had already taken an hour and a half train from Philly to get to Penn to go meet his brother for a long weekend at the Saratoga Race Course, just as he has every year for the past 30-plus years.
Lotta history in that course. 150 years to be exact.
On the surface, Saratoga is breathtaking. She is riddled with calming greenery, elegant fountains, majestic old trees, and stables filled with some of the most prestigious Thoroughbreds in the world. Beneath the surface, her heart is livened with cherished, time-honored traditions.
Fun fact I learned from one of my racing ambassadors that the history books won’t tell you: the racetrack was founded by a Gangs of New York character, a ‘mobster, heavyweight champ, gambler, politician and the founding father of the Saratoga racetrack, John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, [is] the greatest American legend you never knew.’ You can read more about that here.
Those who love the sport with true passion know these stories. They know that every plaque, statue, and every sign has a legend behind it. They know the rich culture. They know that I should have worn a big hat. I kid, but if you are going to Saratoga, here is all you need to know about dress code.
Hats really are not necessary. Saratoga today is a mix of that old, time-honored spirit with contemporary practicality, a place where burgers and cigars live side by side. Yes, there is a Shake Shack nestled oh so perfectly next to a premium cigar stand and across from a gazebo sheltered jazz band.
Live music, blue skies, good food, great company. Just when I thought the day couldn’t get better, they handed me my favorite drink. Heaaaveen. The Saratoga anniversary drink, called the 150th, included not one but two of my favorite liquors: vodka and St. Germaine. Thank you, I’ll have a nice day.
Time for some gambling. There are many ways to choose your horse. I went by names and the jockey colors. Don’t do that. I also picked based the Jockeys themselves. Slightly better strategy. I’d either pick the most recent winner of the Kentucky Derby, Joel Rosario, to win or I’d pick the only female jockey because, well, girl power.
I thoroughly enjoyed betting on horse racing for the first time since they let you cheat. Sort of. All of the stats are laid out for you. Once you crack the holographic rubrics cube three-dimensional code that the book of races for the day is to the untrained eye, you’ll discover just how exacta, trifecta, super easy it is to bet on a horse race. There are tons of strange letters and numbers, but don’t fear, they are all there to help you.
The book tells you not only how the horses placed in prior races, but also how fast they ran, and what place they were in throughout the race. You can tell if they were improving or falling behind the other horses in other races. It tells you whether they were on turf or dirt, how much money the prior races were for, and how many races their jockey has rode, won, showed, and placed.
You can go off of stats, colors, names, jockeys, lucky numbers, or you can tap into the horse whisperer within you at the Paddock, where the horses do a lap with their jockeys on the way out to the track. From there, you can let the horses themselves tell you what kind of a day they are having.
I’m no gambler, but I’d bet I’ll be betting on some more horses… often and soon.