If you've never been to Saratoga Racetrack in Saratoga Springs, NY, it’s time you did. It is the oldest racetrack in the United States; in fact, it is the oldest sports venue of any type in the United States.
One of its nicknames is the "Spa," a name derived from the presence of naturally occurring mineral water on the premises. During the 19th century, wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts vacationed at Saratoga in part because many believed that the mineral springs were beneficial to their health. To provide entertainment, John Hunter and William R. Travers built the racetrack in the middle of the Civil War.
It opened on August 3, 1863. Over a period of time, the racing season expanded from four days to four weeks, then to five weeks, and, finally, to its current six weeks. Racing this year started on July 22, 2011, and will continue through Labor Day -- Sept. 5. Racing occurs daily (except for Tuesdays) at 1 p.m. On the first and last Fridays of August, twilight racing begins at 2:45 p.m.
The easiest way to get to Saratoga is to take the Mass Pike west to the New York line. Continue on I-90 in New York until you reach Exit B1. (From West Springfield to the end of the Pike there is no toll; however, when you enter New York, you get a ticket and pay an 85-cent toll to get off at Exit B1.) Continue along for about 12-14 miles after you pay the toll until you approach the Hudson River at Albany. Get off of the highway on the right at 787 North—the first exit after you cross the bridge. Proceed 6-8 miles north on 787 until you see an exit for Saratoga Springs. Take that exit and go about 2-3 miles until you connect with I-87 North—the "Northway." Follow 87 north to exit 13N or 14—either one can get you to the track.
I like to take Exit 14 and instead of going right at the end of the exit toward the town of Saratoga Springs, I take a left toward Saratoga Lake. This is the best tip anyone can give to you about getting to the racetrack and avoiding big traffic jams. Go about 1.5 miles until you see a stoplight at the intersection of Crescent Avenue. Take a right onto Crescent. Well-named, Crescent arcs around the lake and eventually takes you back over I-87. After going over the highway, you will soon come to a stop sign. Take a right onto Nelson Avenue. Proceed about a half mile and you will begin to see the track. On your left is the harness track where harness racing occurs in the evening. (There is also a casino there where you can watch the races—day or night—in air-conditioned comfort.)
As you proceed west on Nelson, you will see parking opportunities galore on your left. I generally park in a lot just past the Horseshoe Bar and Grille on the left. The reason is simple: it’s only $5; it’s a short walk to the track, and when racing is over, it’s the absolute fastest way to get out and back to the highway. When you leave the races, just go back the same way that you came, turn left onto Crescent and within 100 yards, there is an entrance ramp to I-87 south on your right. If you like to wait in traffic and waste time and gas, park elsewhere. If you park in the NYRA parking lots near the track on Union Avenue, you will spend 30-45 minutes in traffic—maybe more—until you get back to I-87. Using the Nelson Avenue strategy, you will spend 5-7 minutes, sometimes less.
Here are some tips about obtaining tickets. My best tip is to tell you to walk over to Union Avenue and cross the street to the Racing Museum. They sell tickets there daily—often clubhouse seats—at face value. Clubhouse seats are usually priced at $16 each. You can buy them in advance for later race days as well. Sometimes you will see people walking to the track who have unused, extra tickets. Most sell them at face value, but some ticket hawkers peddle them above face—especially for better seats and especially for big days like the Travers—Aug. 27 this year.
Another place to check is Craigslist. Season ticket holders will sell the seats they can’t use on the secondary market—usually at cost—on venues such as Craigslist. Yet another place to buy tickets is on Ebay. Many tickets are usually for sale there—often above face value. The ticket office at the track keeps a limited number of grandstand and clubhouse seats for sale each race day. You might be able to get some there as well, but get there early. Since the track ticket sales office is on the west side of the complex, it is best to enter the track through the Union Avenue gates. If you don’t mind sitting on a lawn chair, then that is an option as well. Saratoga also provides picnic tables, so you can bring in a cooler of food and refreshments and view the races that way. There are large TV monitors on the premises or you can walk over to the track with the railbirds and watch the races up close but in tight quarters. Betting windows are everywhere on the premises.
Planning to stay overnight? If you stay in town, you will pay for it. Rooms are pretty expensive, if you can get one. A good alternative is to look in Latham—about 20 miles south of the Spa. There are many rooms available. The same is true for Colonie—just a little south of Latham. There are a multitude of motels on Wolfe Road near the Albany Airport at reasonable prices. Your best bet is to use a multi-site search engine such as kayak.com and see what’s available. The Cheesecake Factory on Wolfe Road is a great place to eat. The best breakfast deal going is the Holiday Inn on 232 Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs. They have a breakfast smorgasbord for a flat price of about $10 each—all you can eat. There’s a great selection of good food, and you don’t have to be a guest to eat there.
The trip from central Connecticut to Saratoga is about 150 miles—roughly 2.5-3 hours depending on traffic and your speed. To expedite the trip, bring your E-Z Pass to navigate more quickly through toll booths—especially on weekends.
So if you haven’t gone yet to the Spa, plan on doing so. The season is not even halfway done yet. It’s a classy place to visit and lots of fun. Check out the photos in the gallery above, and may the horse be with you!
Be sure to check out next week's column for more on Saratoga.