The Spa Spot: Five reasons to get excited about Saratoga
To say the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has been going through a rough patch in recent months would be somewhat of an understatement. In May, months after it was revealed the 57-year-old not-for-profit – which manages the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct racetracks – was overcharging bettors by upwards of $8 million, Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers reached a deal to take over the troubled organization.
President and CEO Charles Hayward, along with NYRA’s senior vice president and general counsel Patrick Kehoe, lost their jobs in the wake of the turmoil.
Despite the negative headlines, which now includes the New York Post reporting last week that new NYRA president Ellen McClain will also be let go following the Saratoga meet, there are still plenty of reasons to get excited about the return of horse racing to the Spa City.
Here are five.
Saratoga goes high tech
Legendary sports writer Red Smith once famously wrote, to get to get to Saratoga from New York City “you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years."
As true as that sentiment is today, even in the track’s 144th season, Saratoga isn’t lacking for technological upgrades. After improving the infield tote boards and video monitors in recent years, NYRA is offering free Wi-Fi for all track attendees this summer.
What’s the big deal?
Anyone on the grounds will be able to use their own wireless devices to handicap, watch and yes, even place bets without having to leave their seat. Gamblers can even deposit funds into the track’s FastBet system at any of Saratoga’s parimutuel windows.
Beer, beer and more beer
Let’s face it; in the eyes of many horse players, few things soothe the pain of a tough day at the track better than a cold glass of beer. On those afternoons (rare in my case) when we leave with more money in our pocket than we came with, again, a frosty pint is a great way to celebrate.
This year, beer connoisseurs are sure to flock to the track’s new beer garden, which features 12 craft brews and is located in the rear of the grandstand.
For a full list of beers on tap, head to NYRA’s official website.
My personal favorite is the Bear Naked Ale from the Lake George based Adirondack Pub and Brewery.
New faces in the jockey colony
While longtime stalwarts like Ramon Dominguez, John Velazquez and Javier Castellano are sure to compete for a riding title, several newcomers will likely give them a run for their money.
In addition to Kentucky Oaks winning jockey Rosie Napravnik, whom I had the pleasure of spending a day with and interviewing at Belmont Park last week, Junior Alvarado and Joel Rosario will call Saratoga home this summer.
With 10 riding titles in Southern California already under his belt, the 24-year-old Rosario is arguably the most accomplished new face in town.
Two-year-old crop begins to take shape
Granted, this can be said of any year, but Saratoga always offers a great opportunity to get a first look at the current year’s two-year-old crop. All it takes is one big performance at Saratoga to start the Kentucky Derby chatter.
In 1972, a two-year-old Secretariat first emerged as a super horse, winning three races – including the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes – at Saratoga. The following year, he became horse racing’s ninth Triple Crown winner.
In recent years, eventual early Derby favorites Uncle Mo (who scratched a day before the 2010 Derby) and Union Rags (seventh in this year’s Derby) first burst onto the scene with dominant victories at Saratoga.
While his sixth place finish in last summer’s Hopeful Stakes was anything but impressive, this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another first introduced to himself to fans at The Summer Place to Be.
Who will it be this year? We’ll know soon enough.
It’s still Saratoga, after all
At the end of the day, Saratoga Race Course, the nation’s oldest active sporting venue, doesn’t need any bells and whistles to offer up a great afternoon. That holds true whether you’re a seasoned horse player or are just looking to enjoy a day with friends and family.
Sports Illustrated’s editors thought enough of the place to name it one of the 20th century’s ten best sporting venues .
What surprises will the next 40 days hold? Which horses, trainers and jockeys will separate from the pack? That all remains to be seen but I promise we’ll be paying close attention and bringing you all of those stories – big and small – right here on the Spa Spot.
Matt Hunter covers Saratoga County and Saratoga Race Course for YNN. Follow him on Twitter at @MattHunterYNN.