SARATOGA SPRINGS Saratoga Springs is always bustling this time of year, but this is the weekend when activity will peak. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a big horse race Saturday.
With good weather predicted and three high-profile stakes-winners running, there’s speculation that 50,000 people could turn out for this year’s Travers Stakes — tripling the population of the city for a day.
“You have every possible thing from a positive standpoint falling into place,” said Saratoga Springs Police Lt. John Catone, who is among those planning a crowd management strategy.
At a glance
• The first post time Saturday will be early, at 11:35 a.m.
• The Travers itself is in the late afternoon and will be broadcast on NBC in a program expected to run from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
• General admission will be $5 and clubhouse admission will be $10. Both are higher fees than on a regular race day.
The 144th running of the $1 million Travers will feature three prominent horses with names the public recognizes going head-to-head in the biggest race of the Saratoga meet.
The Midsummer Derby at Saratoga Race Course is always a highlight of the New York Racing Association meet at the Union Avenue track — and it’s good for businesses both on the track and downtown.
Hotel occupancy in Saratoga County has looked strong since July, and that translates directly into visitors spending money in restaurants and in shops, said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
“I know there’s been a lot of demand for hotels, for seats at the track, and there’s always a mad rush when the gates open,” he said Thursday.
The chamber head was referring to the opening of the track’s admission gates at 7 a.m. Saturday — four hours earlier than on most race days — when a brief but intense footrace will be on for the best available picnic tables.
Whether track-goers sit at rustic wooden tables and watch on TV monitors or crowd the rail to catch the thundering thoroughbreds live, there’s the potential that fans will see a classic race.
Last year, when the field was considered wide open, Alpha and Golden Ticket finished in a dead heat for the Man o’ War Cup, as the Travers trophy is known.
This year, when the city is also celebrating the 150th anniversary of racing in Saratoga, fans could be in for a dandy of a race. The nine-horse field includes the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Haskell.
Verrazano, winner of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 28, and Palace Malice, winner of the Belmont and the Jim Dandy last month at Saratoga, are both trained by Todd Pletcher, the leading trainer of this year’s meet. They’ll be facing Orb, the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, trained by another legend, “Shug” McGaughey. Verrazano is the current favorite, at 2-1 odds.
“Especially with these horses, each has a name that registers with people,” Shimkus said. “This is one of those weekends when you go for the horses. They are the greatest horses in the world.”
Even though those three are this year’s best-known 3-year-olds and the betting favorites, Saratoga is known as the “graveyard of favorites” for a reason. The term “upset” became common after a horse named Upset beat Man o’ War here in 1919, and Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Gallant Fox also lost at Saratoga.
Big crowds can be expected around town both before and after the race, and police will have extra staffing throughout the city.
“We have summer staffing levels that are in place July 4 through Labor Day,” Catone said. “For the Travers and some other special activities, we do add some additional people.”
All four lieutenants will be working, he said, and will have the authority to call in more officers if needed. State police and the FBI have also been involved in planning, he said.
While track attendance is down from a year ago, the city’s hotel bookings have been strong all summer, Shimkus said.
The chamber surveys hotels and bed-and-breakfasts up to five weeks in advance on their booking projections.
“Travers weekend has looked really strong ever since we started measuring five weeks ago,” Shimkus said. “Good weather will put us over the top.”
On that score, it’s looking like the New York Racing Association has gotten lucky, indeed.
The National Weather Service and Accuweather forecasts call for the heat and humidity of earlier this week to be gone. Saturday is predicted to have sun all day, with temperatures in the high 70s and only light winds.
For those planning to make a day of it, there will be 14 races on the Saturday program, including three other stakes races: the Grade I King’s Bishop, the Grade I Test and the Grade II Ballston Spa for fillies and mares on the turf.
Given the potential crowd, Catone asked that people driving to the track try to arrive early to lessen traffic congestion on residential streets.
Last year’s Travers Day track attendance was 46,528. It’s always the biggest turnout of the meet, but NYRA officials aren’t going out on a limb about how big this year’s crowd could be.
“We’d be delighted to have 40,000, and anything above that is a bonus,” said NYRA spokesman Eric Wing.
He said some concession stands will be ready early because of the 7 a.m. gate opening, and all will be open during the day. They’re all stocking up on supplies, Wing said.
“The number one priority is not to run out of food, and beer,” Wing said.
Today, as a warmup for the Travers, the track will be hosting the 13th annual Battle of the Brews, and it’s also Family Friday with face painting, arts and crafts, and other activities for children.
A ceremony at 11:30 a.m. will honor Hall of Fame riders John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero Jr. as the three winningest jockeys in Saratoga Race Course history.