At a track called Saratoga...part 1 of 3
Next Wednesday, the Saratoga Race Course opens for the season once again, an annual August tradition that dates back to the mid 19th century. The track is a big deal in SmAlbany – no one can deny that. It just is. And I think the root of the big deal lies firmly within the cultural significance the track plays in the minds of people from SmAlbany.
Although it doesn’t open till next week, the sights and sounds and majesty of the track are already being heavily advertised on radio and television. Anyone who has lived in SmAlbany for any amount of time can surely recall the various radio and/or TV advertisements of the past 20 years and of today:
"The August place to be!"
"A girl wants a pony. A woman wants a pony to place in the 7th!"
"SAR-A-TOG-A...where magical mornings lead to excitement in the afternoon..."
And, of course, the old spine-tingler [deep voiced, slow-drawl announcer]:
"Man of War started 27 races in his career... Won 26 of them... His only loss... to a horse named Upset... at a track called Saratoga."
Horseracing is a profitable business for the state, and Saratoga is an exceptionally profitable track. So it's only natural that the state spends an enormous amount of money cultivating a memorable print and media campaign to go along with their cash cow. Yet to anyone who lives around here, there's an undeniable love affair between residents of SmAlbany and the Saratoga Race Course, one that transcends the demand-side push of the track ads.
And I don't mean a base, gambling-rooted love affair. Sure, that's there. There are people who love the track because they love to gamble. But the immediate reaction of anyone who visits the track and 'toga for the first time is how much it does not resemble all other tracks and all other gambling locales - it's beautiful, people are well dressed, kids are everywhere, bands are playing, and people are talking to each other. Many people from SmAlbany subconsciously understand horseracing better than people from other places. And it can get you into trouble: when you’re the guy who knows what an exacta is and how you figure the payout for one, a lot of people look at you funny, because horse racing is trashy almost everywhere else in the whole world.
When it comes right down to it, most people don't go to the track to gamble. Sure, the average person at the track bets $2-3 on a handful of races, but that's not why they are there. For the most part, people are there because it's something to do with one's friends and family on a beautiful day in a beautiful park. And because it's something, in SmAlbany, that people feel like they need to be a part of. It’s like you’re not in on something if you don’t know about the Big Red Spring. Or you’ve never walked down Caroline Street on a Friday night. Or you can’t moan about how all your co-workers seem to find ways to ditch work and go to the track several times an August.
And even more so, the track fulfills a recurring fantasy for residents of SmAlbany. People in SmAlbany are neither rich nor ostentatious. But at the track, everything seems rich and ostentatious. You can rub shoulders with the rich and famous. You can walk down Union Avenue past the million-dollar mansions. For $5 you can buy your way into exclusivity in the clubhouse, with its dress code and view of the proletariat picnic area. All the rich people from all over the country come to Saratoga, but for less than $10, any resident of SmAlbany can pretend they are among the rich and famous as well. And this fits right into one of the defining cultural axioms of SmAlbany: the excessive pride taken in a culture obviously looked down upon by those in the big city. People in SmAlbany know this isn’t New York City, and we don’t want it to be. What we have is better, no matter how much the big city folk make fun of it.
So then, why do people love the track around here? Well, first because it’s fun. But a close second is that the rich and famous love the track, but in this case, they have to come to our backyard and our town to enjoy it. Face it – you’ve driven up the Northway to the track before and laughed at how much out of town'ers have to pay for a hotel room. You’ve smiled at rich ladies waiting in a long line to buy a Post Parade. The track is lovable because anyone who’s anyone wants to be there, they have to come live in our backyard for a month to do it, and once they get there they are treated just like us. For one month a year, SmAlbany is the place to be and everyone from New York City comes up to join in the fun.
I assure you that this Horatio Alger-type tale actually takes place in the minds of people at the track. The track is a fine social leveler - it makes everyone feel like part of the upper crust. Just walk through the picnic area sometime, and notice what the people are eating and drinking. It looks something like a football tailgate: coolers full of alcohol, tables covered with way too much food, etc. But then take a closer look: at more tables than not, it’s working class folks drinking expensive beer, or wine, or top-shelf liquor. It’s not burgers and dogs; it’s wine and cheese. Men who I have never seen on the weekend in anything but a t-shirt will put a collared shirt on for the track. The same goes with the “no taking change” policy. It’s cultural taboo at the track to accept coins as change from the kids selling lemonade and programs. And the most tight-fisted people abide by it. Post Parade cost 1.35? I’m not touching that silver as it comes across the counter, no sir. And neither is anyone else.
The freewheeling party atmosphere in Saratoga in August is driven by the track, but probably owes it direct gratitude to the bars and restaurants downtown. For many SmAlbany residents, the sense of “happening” at the track is more produced by the downtown scene than by the racetrack. Try this: on any Friday and Saturday night in August, just after 11:30pm or so, walk out on the corner of Caroline and Putnam street and stand there. See the people. Hear the music. And then think about it. The reaction almost invariably is, “I can’t believe I’m standing in SmAlbany right now. I just can’t believe it.” And you see the limos, and the women in the hats, and the wealthy businessmen, and all of a sudden it hits you. They’d rather be here than Manhattan. They can only admit it one month a year, but they’d rather be here.
And, of course, in all its grand fashion, the track actively plays right into this, cultivating the aura of wealth for both the rich and the not so rich. The same idea is subtly in play downtown at the bars. But more on that in Part II and III of this series, coming tomorrow and Wednesday.