CARS HOMES JOBS

Tours provide inside track on race course

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
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Saratoga Race Course tour guide Lisa Fernet gives Dot and John Willsie along with Doug and Don Pliska, a tour of the facility recently.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Saratoga Race Course tour guide Lisa Fernet gives Dot and John Willsie along with Doug and Don Pliska, a tour of the facility recently.

— Pssst — John Weber knows a secret about Saratoga Race Course.

He’s willing to share. If people want a great view of horses charging toward the finish line, all they have to do is stand in the end corner of the grandstand. The spot is easy to find, right across from the top of the stretch.

“I’ve watched races in that spot for years for a variety of reasons,” said Weber, who lives in Glens Falls. “One is, it’s free, of course. The second is, very few people will go to that spot, even on a busy day. When the horses turn for home, it’s almost like you’re standing over the top of the race. If your horse is moving, it’s very likely to be in the mix at the finish line.”

Weber hands out the tip every racing day, during the morning and afternoon walks he makes through the grandstand. The tours, new this year, leave the guest services information booth at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. Afternoon excursions begin at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30. The tours cost $3 per person, $10 for a group of four.

Stephen Travers, vice president of hospitality, guest services and group sales for the New York Racing Association, said about 60 people take the hourlong tours every race day. “They’re just to create a better guest experience, give people a little extra something they wouldn’t normally get, show the historical,” he said. “People like to find out things they didn’t know.”

Weber, who has been coming to the race track since 1972 and working in Saratoga’s hospitality services department for the past 14 years, shows people where they can sit comfortably during a day at the races. Some spots are near the Carousel bar under the grandstand; other smart spots are the metal chairs and tables that ring the Carousel perimeter.

Weber had seven people with him for a recent tour. He included some history during the walk, part of Saratoga’s celebration of 150 years of racing heritage. Some of the history is a mystery. Weber showed off a 19-rung ladder attached to roof support beams between clubhouse reserved seating sections D and E — right across from the clubhouse rest rooms. A second, 15-rung ladder is attached to the first, and both stretch to the top of the rafters.

The ladders date from the early days of the track; the owl decoys in the rafters are newer additions, designed to scare away birds. “This is just a guess,” Weber said of the ladders. “There was no electronic tote board, so maybe they put up what race it was, or maybe they just put up the winner.”

Weber doesn’t expect anyone has been on the old wood in many years, and doesn’t think anyone would want to try his or her luck. “It looks like those rungs would snap fairly easily,” he said.

During a visit to the reserved boxes, Weber told tour participants they could bring in their breakfasts and sit in any box during morning exercise sessions. “That’s a good time to be here because everything is free,” he said — excluding the buffet breakfast in the Porch restaurant.

Weber also talks about the race course’s canoe tradition during tours. Every year, the canoe anchored in the infield pond is painted in the colors of the horse that has won the Travers Stakes, Saratoga’s signature race. This year, there are two canoes in the water — Alpha and Golden Ticket finished in a dead heat in 2012, so both are represented.

Weber said the canoes are moved often. But people never see track workers carry the watercraft into a nearby shed every night. The move is designed to reduce temptation for practical jokers who could sneak into the track overnight: “There have been years in which the canoe has mysteriously disappeared from the pond,” Weber said.

People go on the tour for different reasons. “I love the track, I love the track history, I love the horses,” said Jennifer Ashfield of Troy, who volunteers at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame across the street from the race course. “I wanted to learn more about it.”

Weber just likes answering questions. “The other day, a guy came up to me and wanted to know the Equibase speed and pace figures,” he said. “Then you get people who want to know how many acres there are here.”

 
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