It’s where my father knelt down on one knee and said to his youngest son, “Sean, if the horse loses, you just can’t cry about it.” I cried at being told not to cry.
It’s where I got the phone number of a 21-year-old crush, folded up the ripped-out program page, and called the number when I got back to college in September. I married that girl, oh, 16 years later.
It’s where I won my biggest race, the New York Turf Writers Cup in 1998, starved from a jockey’s weight regime and starving for that one victory that would make it all worth it. My dad cried because the horse won.
It’s where I’ve spent every summer—from watching the unbeatable Secretariat get beat in 1973, to riding steeplechase races from 1988 to 2000, to writing The Saratoga Special, a daily newspaper, from 2001 to today.
It’s Saratoga, the fabled upstate racetrack and town. A place to discover, a place to cherish.When asked for directions to Saratoga, famed turf writer Red Smith said it best: “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.”
Yes, we’re still going back 100 years. It’s changed significantly since Smith’s days but it’s still the least changed thing in an ever-changing world. This year’s meet started July 11 and runs until the last race on Labor Day. Forty days of racing, 40 days of sport, 40 days of thrills. Racing takes place Wednesday through Sunday, the best horses run on the weekends, but every day is worth the trip.
The meet began in 1863 as a month-long getaway—escape the city, head to the Adirondacks, to a spa town with a focus on horse racing. They called it the “August Place to Be,” back when horse racing was, indeed, the Sport of Kings. That sense of pageantry and urgency has waned, of course, but it’s still palpable today. This is Fenway Park, the Louvre, Old Faithful.
Pick your style. Want to get dressed up and go racing? Then find a friend with a clubhouse box at the finish line, or reserve a table in the Turf Terrace. Want to go casual with your kids? Then find a picnic table under the trees or a park bench on the apron in front of the grandstand. Want to drink beers and gamble with your old college roommates? Then find a spot at the end of the Paddock Bar. See, that’s the beauty of Saratoga, there is a spot for everyone. Wander around the place, watch races from all the different venues, you’ll experience Thoroughbred racing as it was meant to be experienced. Nine, 10, 11 times a day, you’ll escape from life for a minute or two. Owners in coats and ties, old men smoking cigars, kids in flip-flops and shorts, women in Lilly Pulitzer … all enjoying sport and Saratoga. Just don’t cry if your horse loses.
- Respect the horses.
- Watch races from every spot at the track.
- Get up early and watch the horses train in the morning.
- Read The Saratoga Special.
- Dress up.
- Call it Toga. It’s a national treasure, not a drunken theme party.
- Try to make left turns on Broadway.
- Expect dinner reservations on Travers Day (August 24).
- Bring your New York edge.
- Bet your eating money.
Sean Clancy is a former champion steeplechase jockey and co-publisher of The Saratoga Special during the race season at Saratoga.