This Week in Saratoga: Alabama Week

Events / Travel
Fans enjoy a perfect afternoon at Saratoga Race Course. (Eclipse Sportswire)

While most kids went to summer camps, we went to Saratoga. Instead of lifeguarding or waiting tables, we sold tip sheets and worked the betting windows. To us, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is summer. And it’s not just the championship racing. It’s jet skiing on the lake, concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, fried chicken and dough boys, and late nights on Caroline Street. Our This Week in Saratoga series highlights the very best of the racing, establishments, events and experiences in and around Saratoga, which have defined our summers for the past 25 years. 

This Week’s Quote: 

“The racing at Saratoga has a flavor all its own. No such brilliant sport is found on any other track in America. Here the best of the East, the South, and the West meet in five weeks of spirited — and often bitter — intersectional dispute.”  — Peter Burnaugh, 1927

Nearly 90 years later, and Peter Burnaugh’s praise for Saratoga as a venue for “intersectional dispute” is truer than ever.

Exhibit A: this week’s racing action. Undefeated champion and West Coast darling Songbird makes her second start at the Spa on Saturday in the Alabama Stakes. One day later, reigning Canadian Horse of the Year Catch a Glimpse stars in the Lake Placid Stakes. And with the loaded Travers card just a week away, Saratoga will play host to best horses from all over the country.  

To compliment the tremendous racing, there is plenty to do around town this week. In this edition of This Week in Saratoga, we highlight two tremendous fillies; the Alabama, a stakes race that has been contested since 1872 and was initially won by a horse named Woodbine running for August Belmont; two “bonus” stakes races postponed to this weekend due to last Saturday’s biblical storm; and another fun-filled weekend around the “summer place to be.”

Races of the Week: 

This week’s racing is headlined by two tremendous 3-year-old fillies. 

Jockey Mike Smith urges Songbird to the wire in the Coaching Club American Oaks. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Superstar Songbird makes her second Spa start in the Grade 1 Alabama, a 1 1//4-mile race for 3-year-old fillies. By all accounts, Songbird is doing even better than she was prior to her impressive victory in the Coaching Club American Oaks last month. With main rival Carina Mia pointed to a sprint stakes on Travers day, Songbird looks to be unbeatable … almost.  Remember, Saratoga is the "Graveyard of Champions," but it would be a shocker if anyone but this champ wins the Alabama.

The best 3-year-old filly this side of Songbird, Catch a Glimpse, takes to the turf course on Sunday in the Grade 2 Lake Placid. The reigning Canadian Horse of the Year has shined in the U.S., winning all five of her 2016 starts, including a victory against males in the Penn Mile and a last-out score in the Grade 1 Belmont Invitational Oaks. Her only career loss? Her debut at Saratoga last July. But in all fairness, that race was taken off the turf and contested on the dirt main track. While the Lake Placid is expected to draw a deep field, including the talented Harmonize, few expect the Graveyard of Champions to strike here. 

In addition to these two headliners, Mother Nature gave us a little bonus this week. The Fourstardave Handicap and Adirondack Stakes, scheduled to be run last week but canceled due to weather, will be contested Saturday and Friday, respectively.  The Grade 1 Fourstardave will feature the same headliners that originally entered, including defending winner Grand Arch, Tourist, and Thorobros favorite, A Lot. Friday’s Grade 2 Adirondack, for 2-year-old fillies, will (again) be headlined by Wesley Ward’s Silvertoni.

Tradition of the Week:  

Eclipse Sportswire

It’s unavoidable. No matter which gate you enter, no matter if it’s 11 a.m. or 2 p.m., your arrival at Saratoga will be met with a serenade of “Five winners yesterday!”  “WE HAD SIX WINNERS YESTERDAY!” “$500 Pick 3 yesterday!” “Haven’t missed an exacta since Sunday!” “Had the Pick 4 the last three days in a row!”  It’s the sound of the track welcoming you back. Regardless of whether you have ever purchased one, tips sheets, and more precisely those who sell them, are part of Saratoga’s charm and experience.

Here are two of our favorites, who also happen to highlight the gamut of offerings you may find on your entrance to the races.  First, you have “Brother John,” who sells a tip sheet called “The Jewel.”  His pick sheets are very popular. And it makes sense, because when you get the opportunity to gamble based on the opinions of a guy who looks like he got kicked out of ZZ Top, how could you not do that?

And then there was, Tom Mullan, a true Saratoga character who epitomizes everything that is appealing about the Saratoga experience. Tom began working at the track in 1939 (!), and started by shining shoes. He graduated to hawking tip sheets in 1941, and did that from 1941 until 2013. Sporting his traditional flat green Irish cap and matching green windbreaker, Tom would sell hundreds of his sheets every day, at $2 a pop. Unfortunately, Tom passed away in 2014. But his legacy lives on as Saratoga’s unofficial greeter for over 70 years. 

So, even if you don’t want or need a tip sheet, we’d strongly urge you to seek out the best character you can find this weekend and fork over the $2. The conversation and experience are worth every penny ... even if you don’t hit seven exactas in a row.

This Week’s Events:

On Thursday, Aug. 18, head over to the Saratoga Pavilion to sample local wines and hard ciders.  Five samples for $5 makes for a nice, little happy hour.  Once you are done at the Pavillion, and the races are over, head over to the Paddock Bar for Tequila and Taco Thursday, where you can support Turtle and Vince by purchasing Avion margaritas and other featured cocktails. Latin music and dancing also highlight the evening. 

On Friday, Hatties' chef Jasper Alexander will be signing his new cookbook featuring some of the restaurant’s classic recipes from noon to 2 p.m. at the Jockey Silks room.

Saturday will be purple day at the track, designed to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer.  Fans are encouraged to wear purple. The day will honor the legacy of trainer Dominic Galluscio, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2014.  Numerous trainers will sign autographs outside the jockey room from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for a nominal donation of $10.

On Monday, bring the family to Berkshire Family Mondays. Held in the Saratoga Pavilion from 1-4 p.m., there are kid-friendly games and the opportunity to meet and pet a retired racehorse.

This Week’s Replay:

It’s Alabama week, so of course, this week’s replay features one of the best renewals of the Alabama in recent memory.  In 2011, It’s Tricky entered the Alabama as a 2-1 favorite following wins in the Acorn Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks.  The race also featured Canadian star Inglorious at 5-2 and the first- and second-place finishers from the Kentucky Oaks, Plum Pretty (9-2) and St. John’s River (4-1).  However, it was the fifth choice, Royal Delta, who relished the 1 1/4-mile distance and surged to the front in the stretch.  She would use this race as a catapult to back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Distaff victories, and very likely, a spot in the Hall of Fame.

This Week In the Area

Around Town:  This is a horse racing website, and really for this weekend and next weekend I can’t in good conscience advocate for you doing anything other than the races – particularly on Saturday. Nevertheless, you may want (need?) a cocktail after winning all that money.  Therefore, the recommendation here is to do a traditional Saratoga evening of imbibing. Start at the paddock bar during the races – one of my favorite places at the racetrack.  Follow that up (after the races conclude, of course) with a trip to Siro’s, a Saratoga institution across from the track, for a drink. After that, grab a quick bite and head downtown.  There is a ton of live music downtown this weekend of all types and varieties. Wander down Broadway and Caroline Street and stop in and catch some – just don’t stay in one place. One of the best aspects of Saratoga is that you can easily go to five or 10 bars in one night, and enjoy them all. 

Saratoga Performing Arts Center (WikiMedia Commons/UpstateNYer)
SPAC:  Another solid week at the Performing Arts center is highlighted by continuing world-class performances from the Philadelphia Orchestra. The classical music is briefly interrupted on Sunday, Aug. 21 by Tribe Society, Collective Soul and Goo Goo Dolls. When I was researching for this article, I got super-psyched about Goo Goo Dolls and went on a pretty extended deep dive into the Goo Goo Dolls discography (remember CDs?).  I ended up feeling old (Dizzy Up The Girl came out 18 years ago!).

Top Event: Some of you may have followed magician wunderkind Steven Brundage on this season of "America’s Got Talent."  If you haven’t seen it, he totally killed it with a Rubik’s Cube, and Simon Cowell was freaked out.  Great television. In any event, Brundage is bringing magic back, and, based on some minimal internet research, appears to be a proud product of Glenville, N.Y., although he claims Saratoga Springs (can’t kill him for that). 

Brundage also once got out of a speeding ticket in Scotia by wow-ing a police officer with a magic trick. For the readers out there, if you end up getting pulled over in Scotia please don’t try the same thing. I recommend a three-step process: (1) pay the fine; (2) figure out why you were in Scotia; and (3) fix whatever reason you identified in step two. But all kidding aside, Brundage is putting on a performance in the High Rock room at the Saratoga Hilton on Friday, Aug. 19.  It costs $20, but if his performance on AGT is any indication, you will get your money’s worth 

This Week In Food and Drink

Chianti Il Ristorante

This Week’s Food Profile:  Chianti Il Ristorante

Everyone loves Italian food, and in Saratoga there are many options to satisfy your cravings for spaghetti Bolognese, antipasto and chicken parmigiana. But if you truly want the best Italian food in the city, served to you in an elegant atmosphere, head over to Chianti Il Ristorante on Division Street. Located half a block from Broadway, this ‘new’ Saratoga staple has been specializing in Northern Italian cuisine since 1998. Previously located on South Broadway, the popularity of this restaurant forced the owners to move to its current, larger location to keep up with demand. However, reservations are still recommended, as the tables fill up fast with guests ready to feast on the savory dishes constantly rolling out of the open kitchen.

When you walk in the door, your eyes, ears and nose are drawn to the open kitchen in front of you. A great preview of your meal to come can be seen and smelled within seconds of your arrival. And this place is all about good food. The menu, from top to bottom, has many of your traditional Italian favorites, like spaghetti Bolognese, fried calamari and penne alla vodka. However, what makes the menu shine is its dedication to true Italian cuisine. This is not just red-sauce Italian. The menu offers a variety of risottos, a portion of the menu dedicated completely to carpaccio beef, which is house-aged for 40 days, and unique fowl dishes like sausage-stuffed quail and chianti-glazed duck. The owner, Dave Zecchio, born, raised and restaurant-trained in Italy, brings a piece of Northern Italy to Saratoga Springs with every meal he serves. Some menu favorites include: the Coccio, a calamari appetizer that is served in a spicy tomato broth with a side of crostini; the Pollo al Limone, bone-in chicken roasted with lemon zest, garlic, rosemary with a white wine glaze; and the nearly daily special of pork-shank Osso Buco, which falls off the bone and is one of the most savory dishes I have ever had.

In addition to the non-stop goodness coming out of the kitchen, Chianti’s has a great bar where you can have a drink before eating or even share a meal. It’s a brightly lit bar, with wine glasses hanging over the top. Just outside is a great patio where diners can be seated during the summer for a great al fresco experience. The bar serves up many specialty martinis, including a delicious raspberry lemon drop. The wine list is one of the best in the city, offering wines from France, Italy, Chile and the U.S.

Chianti’s is also great for hosting larger parties and offers great take-home “Ready to Go” items. They also run Happy Hour specials from 4:30-6 p.m. daily along with a three-course early bird special for $24 ending at 5:30 p.m.

This Week’s Drink Profile:  Saratoga City Tavern

Known to the Thorobros as “The Five-Floor Fun House,” City Tavern has been the go-to spot for Happy Hour and late night fun in Saratoga Springs since 2006. Owned and operated by the Fitch Brothers, this bar has a space that caters to every bar patron imaginable, with unique settings on each of its five floors. The first floor is your classic local pub, with a long wooden bar, offering a draft beer selection with more than 60 beers on tap. The second floor is what we style a college dive, with arcade games and beer signs hanging on the wall; you can also often get a tallboy can of PBR for $3! The third floor is a lounge, with comfy chairs and a pool table, a good setting for a nice chat in a more relaxed environment. The fourth floor, called the Boom Boom Room, is an all-night dance party with a DJ stand, some dancing stages (girls only) and large circular bar to tie it all together. The fifth floor offers the best rooftop bar in the city, with views of all of Caroline Street and Congress Park; a great place to start the night and get a preview of the action in town on a given night.

In addition to its variety of experiences, City Tavern also has a great deal for locals or summertime regulars. It’s Mug Club, which requires a minimal initial investment, entitles the holder to a larger draft beer with every purchase (23 oz. v. 16 oz.). Additionally, once you consume 100 beers, you get a plaque on the wall and your very own mug that they will keep on reserve for you. The record for receiving a mug is 14 days; good luck breaking that.

Food and Drink Events: 

Although we always recommend the track on Saturday afternoon, if you are looking to mix it up this weekend, Artisanal Brewing is hosting a Chillin’ and Grillin’ BBQ Contest at the brewery at 41 Geyser Rd. in Saratoga from noon – 7 p.m. In addition to their brewery tours, this event allows contestants to bring their own entries to submit in the contest and win liquid prizes.

This Week in Saratoga History

August 18, 1962: Often referred to as the greatest race in Saratoga history, the 1962 Travers featured a remarkable 1 1/4-mile duel between Jaipur and Ridan. The two horses were in perfect harmony down the Saratoga stretch, two prizefighters exchanging punches, a lead change occurring with every head bob. Jaipur, on the outside finally established a slight lead with an eighth of a mile to race, but Ridan refused to quit. The tandem hit the wire together, with only a photo evidencing that there was a winner (Jaipur) and, for lack of a better term, a runner-up (Ridan). It was a Travers, horse race, and sporting event for the ages.

The race chart said it best—“Jaipur raced on even terms with Ridan from the break….in a torrid duel.” Jaipur “won narrowly in a race in which neither horse gave way.” Ridan “raced courageously to the end and was beaten narrowly in a thrilling duel.” The replay of this epic race can be seen here.

August 23, 1974: Two-year-old super-filly Ruffian sets a track record winning the Spinaway Stakes by nearly 10 lengths. What made the effort even more remarkable? It was discovered the next day that she suffered a hairline fracture of her right hind leg during the race.

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