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Saratoga: Racing at its best

If you're a horse racing fan, nothing beats a weekend at Saratoga

Photo: TFTribe

Is there anything better than a cool, crisp summer morning at the track?

Admittedly, I avoided the worst of the notoriously volatile Saratoga weather. The worst of the rain on Friday was already mostly clear of the track by the time we arrived. Then both Saturday and Sunday were both spectacular upstate New York summer days. You really can't ask for anything better than that.

A month ago, after bandying about the idea of trying to visit all of the best tracks in the country (a punter's bucket list, perhaps) we actually started to look hard at a weekend that made sense to go to Saratoga. Finding a long weekend that just so happened to coincide with the midpoint of the Saratoga meet, it really could not have worked out any better.

If you've never been to Saratoga, immediately begin driving. It truly is the best track I've ever been to and, honestly, it would be hard to imagine anything better. I can also imagine how miserable it would be up there come winter, which in upstate New York comes in September, I think. With an atmosphere more resembling a suburban concert series than the seedy image popular of the race track, it was enjoyable in every aspect. The apron was packed every day, the box seats full of the who's who of racing, and the food was spectacular.

Notice I haven't even begun to talk about the racing.

Downtown Saratoga is a delightful small town packed to the gills with restaurants, shops, street musicians, and bars. One resident said, "I could walk to a different restaurant every night for two weeks and never eat in a place I've frequented before." I thought she was exaggerating, but she most certainly was not. While tracks tend to be in their own little world (Churchill is in a pretty seedy neighborhood; Keeneland is a world all of its own; Belmont just sits in the middle of a city; and so on) the track is an indistinguishable part of the town. The homes run right up to the backside, line the Oklahoma training track, overlook the front gate and even the track itself. The Fasig-Tipton sales facility is much the same.

Situated two blocks from the main gate of the track and just a block from the Hall of Fame (more on that in a second), the small clutch of sales barns is just up the street from the track. In fact (and don't tell Mr. Fasig or Mr. Tipton, who aren't even real) we parked smack dab in the middle of the sale and walked down to the track. I didn't even feel bad about it, since I even took a peek at a few NY-bred fillies just to say I was a patron of the sale. In line with the rest of the ambiance, the sales facility is a beautiful little spot, with a nice lounge and a beautiful sales ring. On top of all of that, the quality of the NY-breds was fantastic. Just a few years ago, the sale was littered with a slew of "who?" and "what sire is that?" kind of horses. Now the pedigrees, while obviously not 100% on par with the elite sales, rival those of the major national sales. But unlike the FT Select sales, there were still a number of duds, even from the best sires in Kentucky.

Still not on the racing yet.

Typically, race track employees are not the most helpful sort. At Churchill you'll be hard pressed to even find one unless you're in the Jockey Club Suites, and most times they're just chastising you for not wearing your ticket. At Keeneland, their snobbery/pretentiousness overrides their helpfulness. At Belmont, well, they were mostly cleaning up vomit. But at Saratoga, every single race track employee was kind, polite, and overly helpful, to the point where they recognized us after just one day. Not by name, of course, but they immediately chatted with us, asking how our wagers worked out, how good some of the horses looked, and if we had tried the Shake Shack yet (which, by the way, is UH-MAZE-ING). Just a great group that worked there and they were a pleasure the entire time.

The paddock at the track is the most magnificent I've ever seen. With the large saddling areas, individual walking areas for each runner, wide walk ways, lush grass, and a bar (!) right next to it, it is the most horse-friendly spot you could imagine while being in the middle of such a large crowd. I was lucky enough to have paddock passes, so we frequently would mosey over to watch the runners saddle up. The highlight of perhaps the entire weekend was getting to see Wise Dan up close and personal in the paddock. He was about an arm's length from me as he was being walked over to Charlie LoPresti to be saddled. He really does look like a champion. Just absolutely gorgeous.

Now, the racing. I won't get to detailed, since we all know what happened (and it was like two weeks ago, since I've been lazy in getting this piece finished). But I'll focus on two races: The Fourstardave and the Saratoga Special.

I walked right from the paddock, following the horses, right up to the apron, where we watched the race. We all knew Wise Dan was going to win, and standing right there on the rail just past the finish line was far better than up in our seats. It was great to see so many thousands openly and loudly rooting for Dan as he made his final effort to past King Kreesa and win while rooting for the defending Horse of the Year myself. It made no difference he was the overwhelming favorite, and sure, some bettors were trying to beat him, but the crowd ate it up when Dan won. In fact (after he galloped out about another mile...) Dan was serenaded with applause as he came back down the main track, seeking the familiar winner's circle. It was a great sight and experience to see so many show so much affection for a single horse. Really a great display. And there is no more deserving recipient of the praise heaped on him than Wise Dan.

On Sunday, the showcase was the Saratoga Special. Following a bizarre and unfortunate Adirondack, there was a bit of a damper on the crowd. But Corfu lifted the spirits of the entire track's attendees, none more so than the Coolmore boys that were in attendance. Seated about 50 yards from us, we watched them intently as soon as Corfu pulled out the wire-to-wire win. The Irish fellas went absolutely berserk and I'm sure had a fantastic celebration after the sale that night. A great race to cap an amazing weekend.

If you have not attended the races upstate, you simply must make time and go. Any weekend will do, as the racing on every day is on par with all but the best nationwide. Good luck getting a hotel room

Upon leaving Saratoga Springs on Monday morning, Mrs. Tribe remarked how particularly quaint Saratoga was. I asked why do you say that?

She very poignantly observed, "Where else could you see the local coffee shop filled with twentysomethings, tourists, and residents alike all reading the Racing Form in the morning?"