This past Saturday, the husbear and I went to Saratoga Race Track. I was unfamiliar with Saratoga’s popularity until moving to the Capital District. When everyone started talking about Saratoga, I’d wonder “What is Saratoga?” or What was up with Saratoga Springs, NY, horse racing, and the big to-do about it all? I’m not into horses or anything, so even though I’d grown up in NY state, I had never heard about Saratoga. But up here, it’s hard to not hear about, given its proximity and all.
Saratoga is the casual way of referring to both the city of Saratoga Springs, NY, and the race course at Saratoga Springs. I have friends who love Saratoga and grew up spending summers at the track. I’ve been under a handful of times. Here is my most recent excursion to the track, and some of my observations. Maybe you will find them handy if you’re like me (i.e., not into horses, like food and beverages, not a big gambler).
You first find parking. There is free general admission parking at the track, but there are loads of other places that are close that will charge you something like $5 to park your car. But if you don’t mind walking a bit, the free parking is fine. They had a courtesy shuttle, but all in all I think it was under 1/4 of a mile, and we got there late.
There’s this thing called Post Time, and it’s when the races start. Usually the first post time is around 1 or 1:30 pm, and there are 11 races throughout the day. We got there after the first post, which meant we walked longer from the free parking. The doors open around 11 am for general admission, so parking is easier to find then.
General admission is $3 per person, which is paid at the gates when you enter above. There is no stamping or wrist banding. Once you enter, you are in. If you leave, you pay another entrance fee. So don’t leave anything in the car unless you are willing to pay another entrance fee if you need to leave.
You see the peace officers with white chains? There are horse pathways throughout the race course that intersect with people walkways. There are people stationed at them to close off walkways to the public when horses come through.
One of the big things to remember at Saratoga is that horses always have the right of way. These are pampered, high-energy horses that are worth thousands of dollars. And no flash photography. This particular jockey (guy riding the horse) stopped the horse there so a little kid could get a better look at the horse. Quite nice of him.
The horses seem to know they have the right of way, and walk through pretty unbothered by all of the fuss around them. I was caught at one of these horse crossings while exploring the grounds.
The only other time I was at Saratoga was while a guest of someone in the At The Rail pavillion, so I didn’t get the opportunity to do any exploring, and found the whole thing to be, frankly, quite boring. Bad food, people betting, and some horses on TV. Whoop-dee-doo for a first-timer who had zero interest in any of it, right?
Oh, and as an aside, since my only other experience was At The Rail, I figured I’d need to find a nice dress and maybe a hat to wear to the track. Saratoga is overloaded with posh looking and moneyed people during track season, and I do love a good dress code. Albany John said it was unnecessary for me to find a fitted dress because:
Albany John: “You know how in Titanic there was the upper deck with the rich people dressed all nicely?”
Me: imagining that we’d be in some area with chamber music and ball gowns “Yes!”
Albany John: “And then there’s the lower level? And the level under that?”
Me: “Uhhhmmm, yes? …”
Albany John: “And under all of that, there’s the Irish level, where they’re sweaty and dancing and drinking a lot? That’s going to be our group.”
Me: “So… no dresses?”
I still wore a dress, damnit. But one of those stupidly casual jersey fabric ones. And guess what? I could have worn a cocktail dress and fit in, ALBANY JOHNNNNNN.
I consoled my semi-casually dressed self with finding Shake Shack. It was really easy to find. I always mean to go to the original Shake Shack in Central Park, NYC, but never do manage to make it over. I figured this was as good a time as any to try it. Unline the NYC Shake Shack, there weren’t many people in line at all.
They have a simple menu. Burgers, dogs, fries. And really expensive beer. Well, most things at the track are expensive, and most prices in Saratoga are expensive during track season.
The meat that goes into the burgers is angus, antibiotic- and hormone-free. Given that, $5.75 isn’t too expensive, especially at the track.
After putting in my order, I waited and looked at Blue Smoke. Not very busy there, either.
My wait was about 10 minutes. Must have been made to order. They were calling out names on tickets when they were done, which would have been easier were it not for the very loud speakers positioned right above their awning that projected track related stuff intermittently.
I got a shackburger and fries. $9.50 total. The burger price I didn’t really mind, but $3.75 for these fries seemed a bit steep. But I figured I may as well try them since I’ve heard so many good things about them, too. Carpe frites, right?
I was a big fan of the burger. Soft potato roll (I’m usually anti-potato roll, but these got me to change my mind), loosely packed meat, fresh toppings. I couldn’t really taste the shack sauce, though. But everything came together really well. I don’t know if it’s better than the sum of its parts, because every part of it was quite tasty.
I really, really liked the meat, though. Perfectly salted, and bursting with beefy flavor. It was cooked all the way through, but not at all dry. I’d opt for one of these over Five Guys any day.
I probably could have also eaten a double shack burger pretty easily, too. The single patty was more like a light lunch (on its own) than a substantially large burger. But in these times of burger behemoths, it’s nice to have a burger with a size that one can reasonably consume.
The fries… meh. I think they were fine for track prices, but I wasn’t really in love with these. They were crispy on the outside and soft/potato-y on the inside, and well salted, but… I just wasn’t feeling them. They just tasted like industrial crinkle cut fries. Fine, just not my cup of tea. For $3.75, I’ll skip them next time and get a double shackburger.
You don’t have to subject yourself to buying food from the track. Saratoga Race Course also allows you to bring in coolers of your own food, provided you don’t have any glass containers. So you can bring in a whole picnic, complete with beer or wine so long as they are not in glass containers. It makes a day at the track very affordable.
But if you really want to spend money, there are gift stores throughout the track. Plenty of places willing to take your money.
Lots of bar areas, too. You can walk around Saratoga freely with a can of beer or a cocktail glass. Beers were around $6+ each, and I saw one bar stand selling Grey Goose cocktails for $12.
In addition to easily accessible bars, Saratoga Race Course also has a plethora of accessible rest rooms that are incredibly clean and neat. I was impressed – I was expecting a scary public restroom, but these were enjoyable to use.
If you are sitting outside, you should bring a chair, unless you arrive early enough to snag a picnic table. Thankfully someone in our group got there early and got a table outside, so Albany John and I had a place to sit. We don’t really have chairs, which is something we should work on…
But there are other seating options inside. I thought this part was funny – it was in between the outside of the track and the track itself. It was covered, but the track was just a few more feet away, and yet people would sit inside and watch the races.
Here’s the NYRA-only area of the track. Looks nice. They wisely don’t let riff-raff like myself in. Or, y’know. People without NYRA badges. The covered seats are grandstand seating for people who pay clubhouse admission. There is more seating to the right that is not NYRA-only, and you only need to pay $2 more to have access to the club house, bringing your total admission fees to $5 per person.
I wasn’t curious enough to shell out the extra $2 – there was plenty for me to see just in the general admission area.
I decided to watch an actual race since I was at a horse racing track and all. It was pretty boring and over quickly. There was some inital excitement when they were initially parading all of the horses out though – #2 ran off without his trainer and they were scrambling to rein it in. But since I have no interest in horses or racing, all of the excitement of the race was lost on me.
I eventually returned to Albany John and his group and have decided that Saratoga is fun from a social aspect – It’s partly like a county fair, and partly like a park. You don’t pay much to enter, and you get a ton of people watching in one spot. And the bathrooms at Saratoga are way cleaner than those at a park or fair!
These also cracked me up – the covered TVs outside, so the masses can see what’s going on inside the track if they placed bets, etc.