The Jim Dandy, a jockey footrace and gorgeous weather enticed me to make the drive from Vermont to Saratoga on Saturday, July 26th. My only previous visit to ‘The Spa’ was filled with storms and a rash of scratches prompting me to leave early. This trip, I had a half-hearted debate about going Sunday instead (free Saratoga beer glasses) but decided the lure of some Belmont Stakes horses and no rain was much stronger.
Being able to see Tonalist (Belmont Stakes winner), Wicked Strong (Wood Memorial winner and 4th in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes), and Commanding Curve (3rd in the Louisiana Derby and 2nd in the Kentucky Derby - nice exacta for me!) plus some other exciting horses in one race was really appealing. Getting close to them at the paddock, not an option at Belmont on June 7th, was a clincher. And there were also jockeys racing each other ... on foot! I was already a winner.
The jockey race was for a good cause, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF), and if you donated $5 you got to pick a winner. If your chosen jockey won the race you got a Saratoga hat and a chance at a VIP day at the races. The Twitter hashtag was #PDJFD if you want to relive some of the excitement and see more pictures. You can also donate anytime you want.
I wandered about, getting my bearings and enjoying the sights and sounds of Saratoga. I heard cheering in between races and realized that a wedding was occurring in this crowd, complete with the trackʼs bugler and the call to the post. Although the track is large and you can do a lot of walking, there are plenty of spaces to claim as your own - just donʼt pick anything with newspaper or something already there, that is a method of saving a seat and it should be respected.
A SARATOGA WEDDING
My cell doesn’t work in Dorset, Vt. where I’m staying so I was trying to balance texts, Twitter, emails and general catching up at the same time I was handicapping the horses. My picks for better than 10-1 entries worked pretty well, but in my exotic picks a favorite was missing all day long.
SARATOGA BEFORE FIRST POST
I spent much of my day around the paddock, my favorite part of any racetrack. Plus, youʼre near the bar scene of The Post! My viewing areas for the races changed, at first I was trackside ground level (it wasnʼt too crowded early) then watched a few on television and eventually saw the races from the second floor. All of them have their pluses and minuses.
Itʼs a little hard to see at ground level but there is great energy. Plus provides some amusement, after the first race of the day I heard a guy tell his friend, “I already need an ATM.” Television takes you away from some excitement but allows you to position yourself well at the paddock, for example, since most people leave to go see the race. It takes some extra time to get upstairs and there are less places to perch, if you donʼt have a seat, but the view is unbeatable.
WATCHING RACES FROM THE SECOND FLOOR
Eventually, beer beckoned and I wandered to the other end of the track, by the carousel restaurant and bar, and the Saratoga Backyard Craft Beer Garden. Do Blue Moon, Sam Adams and Leinenkugelʼs really still qualify? Saratoga IPA certainly does. A $7 draft seemed reasonable (pretty sure it was a 16-ounce cup).
EVEN THE LOCATION OF THE BEER GARDEN WAS SCENIC
The beer offered a good, dark color and tasted lighter than it looked. I thought the middle seemed a bit hollow, but the entry offered lovely roasted qualities and the finish
was nicely hoppy, as an IPA should be. It was a solid beer, very drinkable and with some rich flavors. I see more of this in my future.
My appreciation for the Saratoga IPA increased exponentially once I tasted the Saranac IPA. Saranac makes a Brown Ale that I have tasted through the years but never really liked and this offering tasted like the Brown but with more hops. It was lacking pretty much everything. At least the taste was clean and $5 for a 16-ounce can at The Post means that might be enough. However, they also offer Yuengling there for the same price and I find that superior. At least I got a Saratoga gozinta with my disappointing Saranac IPA. (A gozinta is what most people call a coozie. I prefer the term gozinta, because beer “goes inta” it. Feel free to run with that, itʼs what we should be calling them!)
THE SARATOGA IPA TAP HANDLE
Around this time I finally found the place to donate and bet on the jockey foot race. Choosing the Ortiz brothers (1 and 1A) seemed like the smart move but it didnʼt work out. However, being trackside for Luis Saezʼs strong run was priceless. It was time for food after that.
Hattieʼs was my target, anyone specializing in fried chicken has my attention and Victoria Garofalo wrote about it in a post a year ago. The line was steady but I was happy to wait since it moved along nicely. Unfortunately, they only offer a four-piece option which was more chicken than I needed. I asked if they split orders, “Weʼre happy to sell you two pieces,” the chipper girl offered, “but the price is still $12.” I passed.
Montreal Poutine was right next door and I havenʼt had any in years. No shortage of choices were offered and I chose the Big Guy version - fries with Montreal gravy, cheese curds, bacon, sausage, caramelized onions and mushrooms. It was huge and mostly delicious. The gravy was a bit sweet for my taste but that is what I recall from Montreal many years ago on college road trips.
The flavors were fantastic and a bite with a little of everything was delicious despite what appeared to be canned mushrooms and frozen, institutional fries. Frankly, the fries were terrible. On their own I wouldnʼt eat more than one but with the gravy and the cheese and meat they work fine. It is a hearty, tasty meal/snack that allows (encourages?) some extra beer consumption and, if you time it right, a growing collection of gozintas.
The highlight of my day at the track was having a sweet spot, on the rail - with trashcans behind me, by the paddock for the Jim Dandy and still being able to get upstairs for a good view of the race. Seeing all those impressive horses up close and personal was fantastic and even the massive flood of humanity following them out to the track didnʼt prevent me from reaching a prime vantage point upstairs. I was very happy to see Wicked Strong win ... both because it seemed well deserved and because my money was on him!
So much good racing, so many things to see, do, and eat and drink ... I am falling for you Saratoga.