Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Sport of Kings: Horse Racing at Saratoga Race Course--July 26-27, 2017

We had been to Saratoga Springs for the Hemmings Concours d'Elegance (an event subsequently moved to Lake George) and had enjoyed the ambiance and decided to return for the horse racing.

Standardbred horse racing took place in Saratoga as early as 1847 but the current track for thoroughbreds started operations in 1863, making it among the oldest sporting venues in the United States.  The racing season is 40 days long, ending on Labour Day, and the most noteworthy event is the Travers Stakes, the oldest major thoroughbred horse race in the USA, inaugurated in 1864.  In 2015 the presence of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah saw the purse increased to $1.6 million but the Saratoga track once again earned its nicknames of "The House of Upsets" and "The Graveyard of Champions" as the heavily favoured Pharoah came second.  In the 1919 Sanford Stakes, the legendary Man o' War lost his only race in 21 contests.

The track has had its ups and downs and was deteriorating by the end of the 1800s.  In 1896 there was no season due to increased competition from other tracks and it was only in 1901, when a group headed by William C. Whitney bought the track that improvements were made and its reputation restored.  Anti-gambling laws meant closure for two years in 1911 and 1912, but the track has operated continually since.

There are three separate tracks at Saratoga: an outer, dirt track of 1 1/8 miles in circumference; a 1 mile inner turf track, and a shorter inner track used for steeplechase racing.  Races in the season are held six days a week.

We spent two days at the track, watching the races and took a walking tour of the facilities.  It was a very pleasant experience but we felt no particular compulsion to make any bets.  It was clear that there is no way to systematically play a horse race, unlike a casino game.  For example, at one point the main track was too wet so the horses were switched to the inner turf track, which would mean that the odds for the horses, which had been calculated based on their running on a dirt track, were now pretty meaningless.  Given Saratoga's traditional cruelty to race favourites, it seems like throwing money away.

On the other hand, there was a lot to look at, from some entertainers singing some 1940s big band songs, to watching the horses being exercised, to enjoying a wood-fired pizza.  There are some displays related to racing history, and you can get a look at the area where all the racing silks are stored.  It is a good place for women to buy fancy hats too.

A short walk away from the Race Course is the National Museum of Racing and the Racing Hall of Fame.  Established in Saratoga Springs in 1951, it moved to its current location in 1955.  The Hall of Fame is the main emphasis, highlighting horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners, but there are fine exhibits about the history of horse racing in America.  When we were there a special exhibit on the life and times of Man o' War was on display.

Walking up the museum, you will see a long line of jockey figures.  Each is dressed in the colours of a particular stable that has horses racing at the track.

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