Saratoga meet to get off to hot start
Heat, humidity lead to concern for horses, fans
SARATOGA SPRINGS Plenty of humans will grumble about the heat Friday at Saratoga Race Course, but racing officials are working to minimize complaints from the four-legged athletes everyone is coming to see.
When racing starts Friday afternoon, kicking off a 40-day season that marks 150 years since the first thoroughbred racing meet in Saratoga Springs, the horses will be greeted with buckets of ice, extra water hoses and veterinarians watching to make sure the animals don’t overheat.
Opening day at the track is expected to be the hottest one all week, with temperatures expected to top out at 96 degrees in the afternoon; with the humidity, it could feel as hot as 103 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Albany.
After a cold front moves through Saturday afternoon, high temperatures are expected to hover in the low 80s through the middle of next week, said Warren Snyder, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service.
“The low 80s are the normal highs around here in July,” he said.
To deal with the heat wave, New York Racing Association officials also will keep extra water on hand in the jockey’s quarters so the riders stay hydrated and will have five-pound bags of ice for sale for fans who are trying to stay comfortable in the backyard.
To monitor the horses before and after their races, NYRA will have veterinarians stationed along the horse paths, in the paddock, at the winner’s circle and on the track.
Most horses will be fine in the heat, thanks to their physical condition and the vigilance of their handlers, said trainer David Donk, who has 12 horses stabled at Saratoga.
“These horses are pretty much in great condition,” he said.
The expected high in the mid-90s is “borderline” as far as racing goes — officials start canceling races for the sake of the horses when the thermometer inches close to 100 degrees, he said.
But just like for humans, excessive humidity affects horses more than the heat alone does. They get listless and don’t perform at their best, which is why Donk is hoping for a breeze today to keep the air moving as he prepares to run his New York-bred mare Hessonite in the fourth race.
Mayor Scott Johnson said Thursday he expects fans will enjoy opening day regardless.
“Despite the oppressive heat, it is going to be a remarkable day for Saratoga,” he said.
One horse at the track won’t be sweating or drinking water at all. A fiberglass horse painted with scenes of Saratoga Race Course throughout its history has been installed just inside the Wright Street gate.
Florida-based equine artist Robert Clark painted the horse, with the four sections showing the architectural evolution of the grandstand and clubhouse and a slice of track life from 1863, 1913, 1963 and 2013.
John Hendrickson and Marylou Whitney donated the horse to NYRA, which in turn will give it to the National Museum of Racing for display after the racing meet ends. The horse’s name will be chosen from fan suggestions in a contest.
Clark, whom Hendrickson called “probably one of the best equine artists in the world,” donated four months of his time to paint the horse, which abounds with symbolism and special touches as it explores 150 years of thoroughbred racing.
Clark imitated the style of mid-19th century horse paintings in the 1863 quadrant on the horse’s left flank, painting them in a flat brown paint with all four legs off the ground mid-stride. Images of track-goers and jockeys — including a black jockey to represent the role blacks played in racing then — appear in black and white, since they come from photos from that time.
The other quadrants depict images of Saratoga racing notables and show the silk colors of many of the stables whose horses have raced and won at Saratoga.
A photo of some of the artwork appears on the cover of the latest issue of The Blood-Horse magazine, released Thursday.
Before the horse was installed at the track, Hendrickson and Whitney stored it in their pool house at Cady Hill, the Whitney estate on Geyser Road.
“He didn’t drink much. He didn’t eat much,” Hendrickson joked. “It’s our least expensive horse to keep in training.”
Many events are planned this summer in Saratoga Springs to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first meet. NYRA hopes to bring in new fans with the special events.
“You don’t get to 150 years of pretty much anything anymore,” said Rodnell Workman, NYRA vice president and chief marketing officer. “We wanted to take sort of an Olympic approach to it.”
An anniversary event Sunday at the track’s open house featuring Disney Channel star Zendaya attracted about 22,000 people, more than twice the 8,000 to 10,000 who usually attend, Workman said. Most were teenage or preteen girls who Workman hopes will fondly remember their first time at the track.
Saratoga Springs officials hope the anniversary events will attract more people to the city in general. The ramifications for this summer’s meet will likely stretch on for years to come, Johnson said.
“We’re going to have people in our city for the very first time, and what better time to show off our city,” he said. “Once people come to Saratoga, they come back.”
In anticipation of this meet, Johnson said the city is pulling out all the stops to make sure it puts its best foot forward. This has included special care and attention for the flower display of the Saratoga 150 logo at the base of Union Avenue and Circular Street, which is traditionally a focal point for visitors to the track and city.
Other attractions at the track include a Fourstardave bobble head giveaway Aug. 11, the first horse bobblehead NYRA has offered, as well as a beer stein Sept. 1 and T-shirt July 28. One giveaway was changed because of a production delay — a Saratoga baseball cap will be given away Aug. 18 instead of a model of Saratoga Race Course, NYRA announced Thursday.
Officials hope $15 million in purses and a corresponding high quality of horses will increase the number of attendees and amount wagered.
“We do great attendance every year,” Workman said.
More than 900,000 people pass through the gates at Saratoga each summer, though that number is inflated because people enter multiple times to get more than one giveaway item. But there’s room for growth, he said.
“I hope we can probably get closer to a million, knock on wood,” he said.
Attendance likely would grow if a certain rumor comes to pass. The Travers Stakes this year potentially could feature the winners of all three Triple Crown race: Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Preakness champion Oxbow and Belmont Stakes victor Palace Malice.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed that this year’s edition will be a blockbuster,” said Christopher Kay, NYRA president and CEO.
Around town, restaurants, stores and lodging establishments are ready for track patrons.
“We definitely stock up for the track season,” said Rene Loviza, a sales associate at Lifestyles, a women’s clothing store on Broadway that sells gowns and hats that women wear to the track and to summer galas and parties.
Many people who come to town for the track season have already been shopping for their attire, she said Thursday.
But increasingly, local business owners find the track’s not the only game in town. At Lifestyles, the busy season starts earlier and ends later than it did years ago, between conventions at the City Center and people who come to enjoy the bustling downtown, parks and cultural attractions.
“It’s just a place to come to spend the day, to spend the weekend,” said store manager Michele Hewlett.
Kirk Nichols, owner of The Brunswick at Saratoga, a bed and breakfast on Union Avenue, said Thursday he still had to plant some flowers along the side of the building but was otherwise ready for the meet, when he’ll have people staying at the 10-room inn every night.
He’s also noticed more business before and after the meet.
“We were busy in July,” Nichols said.
Tonight kicks off the Hats Off to Saratoga Festival, with nearly a dozen bands performing downtown from 7 to 11 p.m. The 22nd Annual Saratoga Hat Contest takes place Sunday at the track.