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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

At a track called Saratoga...part 2 of 3

At a track called Saratoga...part 2 of 3: [Note: This post is part two of a three part series on SmAlbany's most well-known tourist attraction, the Saratoga Race Course, which opens for its 36-day season on July 27th. Part 1 discusses the cultural relevance of Saratoga to SmAlbany; part 2 is about the track itself; part 3 is a guide to the bars and restaurants of downtown Saratoga in August]

This column is about going to the actual track – not downtown, just the track. I was going to write a column here about the axioms of the track – the little things that everyone who is “in the know” knows, but I decided not too. Instead, I’m going to recount the top things I recommend you do at the track. At the end of the column, I’ll list the axioms, but I won’t go into detail about them.

So here are my recommendations for your time at the actual track:

1) Get there way, way too early: Even if you’re going up on a weekday and even if you are brining your own table and chairs, I highly recommend getting the track very early – around 9am if possible. The first race is not until 1pm, and many people do not arrive until just before 1 or even a bit afterwards. This is a huge mistake. There’s something really great about the atmosphere at that time. People are walking around, you can access the clubhouse even if you aren’t buying your way in there later, you can read the papers and the tip sheets, play cards, have breakfast. My favorite move is to get the track around 8am, hang out for an hour, and then walk downtown to have breakfast at the little greasy spoon on Broadway. Park in either one of the free NYRA lots, or park downtown if you plan on spending part of the evening down there (you should). If yo u get to the track prior to about 10am, you won't have to pay admission at first - you can go in and reserve a picnic table by putting your stuff on it (don't worry, no one will steal it if you leave it unattended). Around 10am, everyone has to go outside the gates and wait to come in for the admission, which is $3.

1b) Either get a picnic table or bring your own: This cannot be understated. I’ve never gotten over how some people don’t get a table in the picnic area. Instead, they wander around the track all day. Amazing. So either get there early (9:30 weekdays, 8:30 weekends) and get a picnic table, or just bring your own folding bridge table and chairs and arrive whenever you want. The best spots are places that are (in order): out of the traffic pattern, in the shade, near a TV, close to a betting booth. No table has all these features, so pick what is important to you. I prefer to be on the "inner loop" past the horse walking path, but that's just personal preference.

2) Bring way, way too much food and drink into the picnic area: Perhaps the greatest thing about the track is that you can bring your own food and drink in through the gate. Definitely take advantage, as the track food is one of the weaknesses of the saratoga experience. This can be overdone. You will see picnic tables that have a 6-foot sandwich, 8 bags of chips, four homemade entrees, 10 handles of liquor, a box of cigars, two bottles of wine, a case of beer, pounds of cheese, and 3 tubs of potato salad. You will also see people using handtrucks to wheel in cases upon cases of beer. But they have the right idea. Here’s what you need for a group of 6: Two coolers, one wheeled and one carry. In the wheeled one, put 6 full length subs from subway, 2 bags of chips, a thing of cookies, and either potato salad, apples, or a half-watermelon if you’re adventurous. In the carry cooler, put 20 drinks total, half beer and half soda. I’ve found that people vastly overestimate how much beer you want at the track. It’s just not as conducive for drinking as most people think. Don’t bother with the wine or hard liquor. It’s not worth it. Remember, downtown is only ½ mile away and you’ll be walking there right after the 8th race. There’s plenty of time to drink. Don’t forget a picnic table cloth, napkins, and something to cut the watermelon with.

3) Fool an out-of-towner into drinking from the Big Red Spring: Never fails to be a crowd favorite! Usually, there’s one or two old Italian men chugging the stuff down right next to the spring, so it doesn’t take much to goad your cousin from California into a cupfull. You can sometimes even get the more gullible to go for it a second time a year later, if you “explain” to them that the track has fixed the sulfur taste in the spring and it’s now delicious.

4) Occasionally, buy the clubhouse admission: Even though you got a table in the picnic area or brought your own table and chairs, at least once a summer you should buy the clubhouse upgrade admission and go in there for an hour or so. It’s worth the $3, if only because you get that moment of superiority when you look out at the picnic area and think to yourself they can’t come in here. It’s a cheap thrill, but trust me, it’s fun. Plus you get to watch a race buy the winner’s circle and the finish line. Just don’t be suckered into buying a beer or any food in there. Not worth it.

5) Put some cologne on in the men’s room in the picnic area: If you go in the main men’s room in the picnic area, they have shaving cream, razors, cologne, and every other men’s care product you can imagine. I’ve never seen anyone shave – it would be a little awkward to lather up in front of the kid who hands you the paper towels – but I often make it a point to throw on some cologne. Adds to the upper crust effect. P.S – That kid who works the men’s room has an awful job, but on the other hand, if you’re going to work on outdoor men’s room, the Saratoga Race Course might be your first choice.

6) Go to the paddock to cheer on your horse: You should at least once walk down to the paddock and cheer on your horse before his race. Although you will initially think it’s silly for everyone to be cheering on their horse, you will eventually join in the fun and yell stuff like, “C’mon number 8! Let’s go Mr. Peanuts! Looking good!” Trust me, good times.

7) Play the experienced/inexperienced game: This was a popular game among me and my friends in high school. Then when I got to college I met another guy from the SmAlbany area, and he played it with his high school friends too! Come to learn, it’s a widely popular game that many people “invent” on their own at the track. The goal is to come up with one-liners based on what “experienced” gamblers do vs. what “inexperienced” gamblers do, with a goal of making your friends laugh at your dry wit and poking fun at both experienced and inexperienced gamblers. Since you'll basically "see it all" at the track, there's lots of good fodder for this type of thing.

Here are a few to get you started, and then you can play all summer:

Standing around: INEXPERIENCED.


Making calls on a cell phone: INEXPERIENCED.

Receiving calls on the pay phones in the picnic area: EXPERIENCED.

Buys any of the food at the track except for a lemonade: INEXPERIENCED.

Doesn’t eat at all in August because there’s not enough time for eating and pickin’ winners: EXPERIENCED.

Has two or more of the following: New York Post tip sheet, TU tip sheet, Gazette tip sheet: INEXPERIENCED.

Has a tip sheet you can’t buy at the track or within 50 miles of saratoga: EXPERIENCED.

This game is closely related to the “odds” game that many people play as they drive up to the track. There’s just something fun about making up odds for things when you go to the track. For instance:

I lose money next time I go: 3-2 in favor.

I complain about it: 10-1 favorite.

My mom asks me “how to place a bet”: 2-1

She still messes up: 4-1

She ends up winning more than me: even money

And so on…

As a side note on the topic of games: when you’re a teenager, Saratoga in August seems like the place where the rules were forgotten. Few people care if you’re not old enough to drink. Nobody cares if you’re not old enough to gamble. And no matter how late you stay up, there’s always something going on. The track is a safe place to hang out; the town is too.

There’s an old game that circulated among my friends for the better part of 3 or 4 years when we were older teenageers, which went something like this: try to get yourself into the track on the child’s admission price and then try to get into one of the bars downtown on the same day. A similar game was the “24 hours of saratoga,” which entailed arriving in the early morning at the track, spending all day there, going out to dinner, and then staying at the bars until they closed around 5am, hopefully not arriving back home until after you left for the track the previous morning.

Ok, back to the track.

8) Watch a race from the rail/picnic area: It always surprises me the number of people who only watch the races from the picnic area or only watch the races from the rail. Each way is fun, but you’re missing out if you don’t do both when you are at the track. At the rail, you should arrive at least 10 minutes before post time, because it really sucks if you aren’t in the front row. Out in the picnic area, you should try to position yourself near some of the gambling loudmouths if possible. They provide the best excitement. Don’t consider your experience out there complete until you see both of the following things: first, a guy whipping a picnic table with a rolled up Post Parade, as if he’s actually on the horse he’s cheering from, and secondly, a guy telling everyone in sight after the race that he “woulda had the triple if the stupid 4 horse just came in, I had 3-8-4 and it came 3-8-2…” as if that means he was actually close to the triple. Another fun thing to do is pick a race and don’t watch it, just stand in the picnic area with your eyes closed, and listen to the growing roar of the crowd as the horses come around the backstretch, it’s quite amazing.

9) Buy a lemonade: I don’t recommend any food purchases at the track. Bring what you want to eat, and eat what you bring. My father-in-law swears by the clam chowder, but come on, it’s August. The only thing I do recommend is a large lemondae. They make it on the spot with a real lemon, plenty of sugar, and even though it’s pricey (about $4) it’s worth it. Just don’t get one before the 3rd race, or you’ll definitely be getting another one later. A good move is to sucker one of your friends into getting one about the 3rd race, and have a few sips of his to tide you over.

10) Walk around the picnic area and people watch: This is easily the best thing to do once you’ve lost your quota of money, are sick of playing cars, and have read all three newspapers. Just take a long slow walk from the main gate down to the Big Red Spring and back. It’s truly amazing what you will see. Truly.

11) Become obsessed with a bad jockey: This is actually just something that happened to me and my friends. We’ve been Jean-Luc Samyn fans for as long as I can remember, and he’s stunk as a jockey for as long as I can remember. I bet on him a lot, and he constantly disappoints. Then I don’t bet on him, and he wins. He’s the ultimate lovable loser. Every time I go to the track I end up losing $20, which I pin directly on Samyn as a down a pitcher of beer in town that night.

12) Walk downtown for dinner/drinks at the end of the day: More on this tomorrow in part 3…

Ok, here are the axioms I promised up top: Use a teller, not the SAM machines. Don’t get “trackside preffered” parking. Don’t be a “spinner” on Sunday. Don’t go to Travers Day, but do go on a different weekend day. Always play the pick-6 on a shared ticket with your friends – if you hit the first two races, it will be more exciting than you can imagine. Bet to win, don’t be picking the favorite to show. Don’t throw your losing stubs on the ground; don’t pick stubs up off the ground. Wear a collared shirt; don’t wear pants. Scream if you hit a big exacta. Shut up if you don’t win. Buy your friends dinner if you make a big score. Don’t complain if you get cleaned out. Talk about how great the weather is. Complain about the lack of grass in the picnic area. Bring a pencil. Buy a tip sheet, and complain about it when you lose.

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At 10:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Good stuff...

Tech question: I'm seeing html tags scattered through your posts; I'm reading your blog with IE 6.0    

At 11:34 AM , Blogger Matt said:

Should be fixed now, thanks for pointing it out, i use FireFox and generally don't check how the IE output looks.


At 4:16 PM , Anonymous Diane Hunt-Glassman said:

Hey, Matt, I was wondering what we could do to entertain ourselves in our free days in Albany--now I know, go to the races and walk downtown. However, as the mother of the "cousins from California," I won't be likely to try the Red Spring water--but I'm not telling Emily and Jonathan, so good luck with the out-of-towner treat (or trick).

See you soon,
Aunt Diane    

At 2:39 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Hey - send me an email to my real email address: matthew.glassman@yale.edu, i don't have your email from the commnet.


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