Friday was opening day at Saratoga Race Course. The world’s best horses, trainers and jockeys are back in town for the track’s summer meet. A day at the races comes with its own traditions and customs. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard visited the Spa before the crowds gathered.
Walking into Saratoga Race Course hours before post time on opening day, Union Avenue is starting to look like its old self again.
There are cars filling the parking lots, lines forming at the front gate, and teenagers hocking Pink Sheets and bottled water on the sidewalk.
13-year-old Jordan Wohl is beginning his second season selling water. I asked why he and his friends decided to come back for another year.
“I just really liked it a lot and you make good money too. I love the people. The customers are what make me do it. They motivate me.”
I ask him where he picked up that line.
“My dad,” he says.
Although the line outside the gate stretches down the sidewalk, the picnic tables in the backyard are already staked out with colorful tablecloths and blankets.
Brian Monaco has been coming to opening day for 32 years. He had a simple reason why.
“Look at it!,” he says. “Look Saratoga, look at everybody that’s here! We come back for the races every year.”
On the quiet grounds, New York Racing Association officials cut a few ribbons on some new facilities. NYRA CEO Chris Kay…
“Well it’s a great day, opening day is always great, but today is even more special because we have three new attractions, if you will, for all of our fans.”
There’s the new Tom Durkin Replay Center, celebrating the longtime announcer who retired last year, right beside a new sports bar at the lower carousel. Right outside is a new Walk of Fame where trainers, jockeys and owners have exhibits in their honor.
There’s also a new seating reservation system, which has drawn mixed reaction from fans, where race-goers can reserve any of 100 picnic tables in advance.
“So we think this is the kind of way to help people, particularly those that want to plan ahead, to have a good time,” said Kay.
Many race fans have a good time as soon as the front gate opens.
As the grounds fill up, guests walk up to the rail. They’ve been waiting all year to hear the first bell. And bugle.
This is also the first year at Saratoga for announcer Larry Collmus.
As the first race begins, Collmus continues a Durkin tradition when the horses leave the gate.
“And they’re off at Saratoga!”
Horse Sea Raven and Saratoga staple John Velazquez take first place. In the winner circle, Velazquez, who was seriously injured a handful of times in recent years, is grateful to be back at the Spa.
“It means everything just to be here, be blessed to be here, and to be healthy enough, for me, for of you who know that I’m having a few rough years, so to be here is a blessing.”
After the win I overheard Durkin say he’s one-for-one in his retirement. But there are still 39 race days to go.