Tradition abounds at Saratoga Race Course, which opened in August 1863, a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Here are some of the ways we celebrate our heritage:
The Travers Canoe: Since 1961, the colors of the winners of the Travers Stakes have been painted onto a canoe—or in the case of the 2012 dead-heat between Golden Ticket and Alpha, two canoes—which floats on an infield pond for a year. The canoe itself has mysterious origins, dating to 1926 when according to The Saratogian, “Visitors thronged round the grounds and emanated gasps of surprise when their eyes first met the beauty of the center field. The artificial lake with its enhancing foliage and shrubs, the graceful movements of the swans in the water, and its personal touch with two brightly colored canoes ...”
The Saratoga Bell: Listen closely: A bell in the Winner’s Circle is hand-rung five times, precisely 17 minutes before the post time of each race at Saratoga Race Course. It’s a nod to the days before television and smartphones when the clanging alerted riders and trainers that it was time to saddle up for the next race.
Please Don’t Remove Your Hats: Hats and horse racing are joined at the hip—make that the head—at Saratoga Race Course. Every day at the Spa is a good day for fancy hat spotting but among the best are the annual Hat contest on Sunday of the Opening Weekend as well as any of the “big-event” Saturdays, including Jim Dandy Day, Whitney Day and Travers Day.
Flower Blankets: Susan Garrett of Wilton produces the striking floral blankets that drape the winners of the Whitney, Alabama and Travers, among other marquee races. The Whitney blanket is made of several hundred Mary Lou Whitney Roses, with the Alabama blanket made with red and white carnations with a red border to resemble the design of the Alabama State Flag. For the Travers, Garrett incorporates Saratoga colors—red carnations with white for the border. The number of flowers for each blanket varies, but it’s generally 450 to 800. “It’s being a part of history,” says Garrett of her unusual summer task, which she assembles with the help of friends shortly before each race. “It’s my little niche, my ‘15 minutes of fame.’ I really enjoy it.”
Bury My Heart in Saratoga: Buried at Clare Court Jogging Track on the backstretch are the thoroughbreds, Fourstardave, Mourjane and A Phenomenon. Fourstardave, known as “The Sultan of Saratoga,” occupies a special spot in the hearts of many Saratogians: From 1987 until 1994, eight years in a row, the chestnut gelding won at least one race every summer at Saratoga. Bred and owned by Richard Bomze, Fourstardave was so beloved for his grit and longevity that Saratoga Springs gave him a key to the city, an edible one, on his retirement. Saratoga continues to honor Fourstardave in other ways—the sports bar in the Lower Carousel is named after him, the result of a fan poll, as is the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap on the turf, now in its 34th year.
Wrought Iron: Take 10 minutes—or 20—to explore some of the vintage wrought-iron racing designs that snake around the perimeter of the Clubhouse and Grandstand.
Yield for Horses: When horses head to and from the main track at two points across Union Avenue—the horse path at Gate 4 and another at Gate 16 near the entrance to the backstretch Rec Hall—traffic stops. It’s a time-honored part of the scene in Saratoga where the horses always come first.
Sea Hero: A victory by the 13-1 Sea Hero in the 1993 Kentucky Derby served as a trifecta of sorts: It was the first Derby win for Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, for trainer MacKenzie Miller and for owner Paul Mellon. That summer, Sea Hero and Bailey triumphed again in the Travers. In retirement, Sea Hero sired 15 stakes winners. The striking bronze statue of him in the Paddock cements his legend at the Spa.
Walk This Way: Where else do a sport’s elite athletes mingle face to face with guests? Before a race, jockeys head through the Courtyard to the Paddock to mount their horses and receive last-minute instructions from the trainers and owners. After the races, the riders follow the “jockey path” marked in the Clubhouse and pavement back to the Jockey Room.
Arrrrr! Stop by the Tom Durkin Replay Center near the Fourstardave Sports Bar to call up some of the best race calls in history by legendary NYRA race caller Tom Durkin, now retired. We recommend “Arrrrr”—also known as “Arrrrr! Arrrrr! Arrrrr!”—from 2008. It’s a classic.
The Numbers Have It: On several of the trees in the Paddock are metal signs with numbers that correspond to the horse. That way, horse #1 in the upcoming race goes to the tree with sign #1—and so do the horse’s jockey, trainer and connections—and so forth.
Makes Sense: At the exhibit, Horse Sense, outside the Grandstand near Gate A, guests can meet a retired racehorse and learn about the contributions of outriders and their importance to our sport. Horse Sense is open each Saturday and Sunday from 12pm - 2pm, weather permitting.
Step Up: Two historic rectangle-shaped coach stepping stones dating to 1864, the year Saratoga Race Course opened at its current location, occupy honored sports—one under a tree in the Clubhouse entrance, near Shake Shack; and the other in back of the Grandstand near Horse Sense. The gray stepping stones, which once served as platforms to help women to hoist themselves to and from their horse-drawn carriages, are now adorned with vases with flowers.
Man o’ War Remembered: The legacy of Man o’ War endures at Saratoga Race Course. Commemorating the legendary race horse, perhaps the best ever and winner of the 1920 Belmont Stakes and Travers, are several spots around the track. Part of the horse path is named “Man o’ War Way.” Just inside Gate B is the Eighth Pole from Aqueduct Racetrack, which the great thoroughbred passed on the way to winning the 1920 Dwyer against John P. Grier in what many consider the most difficult of his 20 victories in 21 career starts. The pole, a relic from the “old” Aqueduct, was dedicated in 1959 at the Spa. Saratoga’s Backyard features the “Big Red Spring,” so named for the nickname of both Man o’ War and 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Across Union Avenue near the Oklahoma Training Track is Barn 43, where Man o’ War was housed while at Saratoga Race Course. Today, it houses NYRA’s outrider ponies.
Hoofprints With History: Enter Saratoga Race Course through the Marylou Whitney Entrance at Gates C & D and look down to see the Hoofprints Walk of Fame, plaques that commemorate 38 of the most prolific and notable horses to compete during the track’s illustrious history. Modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hoofprints Walk of Fame was installed in 2013 outside the gates in conjunction with the 150th celebration of the first organized race meeting in Saratoga. The bronze plaques show each thoroughbred’s name alongside the names of its sire, dam, owner, trainer, and jockey. The plaques also feature the horse’s year of birth and signature wins at Saratoga. Saratoga 150 Honorary Chair John Hendrickson conceptualized the project in conjunction with the Saratoga 150 Committee.
Whitney Viewing Stand: Mornings at the Whitney Viewing Stand offer an unprecedented vantage point to experience the enduring ritual of morning training at Saratoga. Open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily during the Summer meet, the Viewing Stand overlooks the historic Oklahoma Training Track across Union Avenue from the Race Course. It models the look of the track’s original 1892 Judges’ Stand, which stood in front of the Grandstand—and honors the many contributions of the Whitneys, one of thoroughbred racing’s most prominent and dedicated families.
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