This Week in Saratoga: Opening Week

Events / Travel
(Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

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 is summer. And it’s not just the championship racing. It’s jet skiing on the lake, concerts at SPAC, 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: “Saratoga represents a reaffirmation of racing as enjoyment, of the original forces which first called it into being. You come away feeling that, well, there is going to be a good deal of concrete and gravel in your horoscope for a goodish while, but afterward there will be Saratoga again, with its shaded paddocks…”

The 11 months of concrete and gravel described by legendary writer Joe Palmer have passed, and this weekend we begin a 40-day retreat to shaded paddocks, enchanted mornings, and live longshots. It’s opening week at Saratoga!

While the track and town are always abuzz during the racing season, there is something special about the excitement and anticipation of the first week of racing. Here are our thoughts on opening week’s top happenings at the track, around the town and at local eateries and watering holes.

This Week at the Track

Tradition of the Week: Of all the opening week traditions, our favorite is the now-famous “And they’re off at Saratoga” call for the meet’s first race. Started by retired race caller Tom Durkin, and embraced by Larry Collmus, the crowd is encouraged to join in welcoming racing back to the Spa. Whether lucky enough to be at Saratoga or following from home–we urge you to take a break at 1 p.m. ET on Friday, watch the first race, listen to Larry channel his inner Durkin, and join the entire racing community in proudly proclaiming— they’re off at Saratoga!

Races of the Week: This week’s racing headliner is clear—Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks features superstar filly Songbird. The undefeated 2-year-old champ figures to be tested in her Northeast debut as Grade 1 winners Carina Mia and Weep No More will challenge Songbird in the CCA Oaks.

Saturday’s card is highlighted by the Grade 1 Diana, 1 1/8 miles on the turf for fillies and mares.  Headliners entered for this event include Dacita, Recepta, and Sagamore Farm’s Miss Temple City.

Opening weekend also features a pair of stakes races for 2-year-old fillies and colts. Opening day’s Grade 3 Schuylerville attracted nine 2-year-old fillies, including impressive maiden winner Sweet Loretta. Saturday’s Sanford attracted five upstart colts.

Finally, Monday’s Lucky Coin Stakes, a turf sprint, is expected to feature multiple stakes winner Undrafted who is owned by NFL wide receiver Wes Welker.

Events of the Week: On opening day, stop by the Saratoga Pavilion for beer tastings from some of New York state’s top breweries including Brooklyn Brewery, our local favorite Adirondack Brewery and Lake Placid Brewery. $5 gets you five samples.

Giveaways: Saratoga is famous for its giveaways and NYRA has planned several promotions for 2016. On opening day, all fans in attendance will receive a free scratch-off ticket with paid admission. Fans will have an opportunity to win a variety of prizes, including $100 betting vouchers and NYRA merchandise, as well as vouchers for concessions, program books, general admission and parking. On Sunday, fans will receive a free Saratoga baseball cap with paid admission.

NYRA photo
Keep an eye out for NYRA’s new Bets Squad, a team of handicapping and wagering experts who can assist new fans in learning to read a program, structuring bets, and operating a self-serve wagering machine. On Saturday, fans can schedule one-on-one tutorials with Bet Squad members in the new NYRA Bets Lounge. We applaud NYRA for this initiative. 

On Sunday, in connection with the Hats Off to Saratoga Festival (more on that below), the race track will host its 25th annual hat contest—another opening week tradition. At the risk of sounding like Pabst Blue Ribbon (still flaunting its 1882 international beer competition victory), one of us does own bragging rights to a third-place finish in the 1996 hat contest, kids’ division. Registration begins at noon and contestants will be judged on the track apron after the second, third and fourth races. 

Finally, on Saturday don’t head for the exits after the last race. Join the “Party at The Post”—at the paddock bar next to Shake Shack—for drinks, music and dancing.

This Week in the Area

SPAC: One of the great amenities of Saratoga Springs is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, located in Saratoga Spa State Park at the end of South Broadway. It is a relatively short walk from some of the downtown hotels, and just a few minutes from the racetrack, even accounting for Saratoga’s August “traffic.” SPAC routinely gets a great lineup of bands, musicians and other performing arts. If you are looking for something to do at night after the racetrack, or if you are taking a day off from the races, look no further than SPAC.

This week is an eclectic week. The New York City ballet has made SPAC its summer home for many years, and they have performances this week Wednesday-Saturday, as well as July 26 and 27. Each performance is preceded by a talk with a member of the ballet or a stakeholder in the ballet. It is a really nice way to spend a summer evening or afternoon (for instance, the matinee on Saturday is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is always lovely). Sunday, July 24 brings something completely different to the stage, as Slipknot headlines along with Marilyn Manson and Of Mice and Men. This is less of a relaxing evening than the ballet, to be sure, but if you are looking to get turnt before the races on Monday, there is probably no better option around town.  Monday night features Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan, so for all of you out there that are fans of both Slipknot and Josh Groban, you have a nice little two-night run this week at SPAC. 

Around Town: This weekend around town is one of our favorite weekends of the whole year. It is the Hats Off to Saratoga Festival.  Downtown Saratoga will be taken over by live music and over 4,000 revelers celebrating the return of racing to the Spa. The list of bands and locations is on the website, but just wandering around downtown and stopping in to listen and enjoy the bands you come across is our recommended approach to the evening. It’s also easy to combine that with a bar crawl down Broadway and Caroline Streets, if you are so inclined. 

The festival is from 7 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, after which the bars are open until … kind of whenever you want to leave. 

Day Trips: This weekend also features the renowned Saratoga County Fair. Want to see racing pigs? A cattle show? Want to see some locals crush some pie in a pie eating contest? This is the place for you. The fair runs from Tuesday, July 19 through Sunday, July 24 and it’s located at 162 Prospect Street in Ballston Spa, N.Y. (about seven miles from downtown Saratoga). They have all the usual fair amenities: food, amusement park rides, people milking animals, etc. There is also plenty of country music and a show by a group called “Axe Women of Maine.” If you aren’t curious about a group called “Axe Women of Maine,” we have to question whether or not you have a pulse. But in all seriousness, the fair is a fun way to spend a day, particularly if you have kids.

This Week in Food and Drink

This Week’s Profile: This week we profile a Saratoga institution: Hattie’s Chicken Shack. Established in 1938, this place has been a favorite of locals and track-goers ever since. Home to a full slate of Southern and Louisiana cooking, it’s the fried chicken that made it famous and has been cooked according to the same recipe since its inception. It has been located on Phila Street in downtown Saratoga Springs since 1968, and has opened up two additional locations: one at the Wilton Mall and another right at the race track in Saratoga.

The food is fantastic. In addition to the chicken (which is a must-order for any person who has never had it), there are great gumbos, mac and cheese, red beans and rice, ribs and fresh fish specials. The sides that come with most meals are outstanding, especially the collard greens. Don’t sleep on the appetizers either, as the stuffed mushrooms with cornbread stuffing are out of this world.

Photo courtesy of Hattie's
The bar is staffed by a local legend, Sal, who slings the best mojito in the land, made with real sugar cane. In addition, they have New Orleans favorite Hurricanes, and Southern beers like Abita and Dixie Lager to complete the full southern experience.

But the original restaurant itself is as much of a draw as the food and drink. The main dining area offers the chicken shack feel, with its checkered table cloths and hot sauce prominently displayed on the table; it definitely displays the down-home feel. The bar area, in the back of the restaurant, is a take on New Orleans, with purple, green and gold tapestries and Mardi Gras masks surrounding the bar and tables. You have a hard time believing you are in upstate New York.

Finally, like all good restaurants, it is the people that make Hattie’s shine. Although Hattie has passed, her mantle has been taken over by chef-owner Jasper Alexander and his wife. They do so much to make the experience fun, delicious and consistent for all that come to share a seat at their tables. The Alexanders and their staff make the experience first class at every turn.

Hattie’s is a true Saratoga mainstay, a must-have meal for anyone who wants to experience all the Spa has to offer. It is our first stop in town every summer, and we suggest you make it yours as well.

Food and Drink Events: The 4th Annual Hay, Oats, and Spaghetti benefit dinner for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is Monday, July 25, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Bravo! (3246 Route 9, Saratoga Springs).  The event features an Italian buffet prepared by the connections of Mama Mia’s Restaurant, live music, and a book signing by Michael Veitch, author of “Foundations of Fame: Nineteenth Century Thoroughbred Racing in Saratoga Springs.” Last year’s event drew over 200 attendees including trainers such as Mike Hushion, Rick Violette and Ian Wilkes, Terry Finley from West Point Thoroughbreds and the mayor of Saratoga. Tickets are $75 before July 22 and $85 at the door.

Courtesy of TRF
The Saratoga social calendar is marked by great charitable events, none of which would be possible without the generous donations of local Saratoga businesses. This event is a perfect example of such generosity. The evening is donated by Lauren and Giuseppe Grisio, owners of Mama Mia's Restaurant and Bravo!. Due to the growing popularity of the event, this year, the Grisios have closed their entire restaurant to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd. “We started at one dining room at Mama Mia's,” said TRF Board member, Suzie O'Cain. “Last year, we had the lounge at Bravo!. This year, Giuseppe and Lauren have given us the entire restaurant, as well as all the food, beer and wine. To think that one business would devote an entire evening during track season for a good cause is almost unimaginable. The TRF is so grateful to the Grisios, who have been beyond generous in their support for the TRF.”

Just another example of what makes this racing season so special.

Opening day eve, July 21, features “Nine and Wine” at Saratoga National Golf Course. A lesson and swing analysis from the course pros, followed by nine holes of golf, and finished by an international wine tasting and food pairing from PRIME. $175 for the event.

This Week in Saratoga History

July 24, 1995:  Pride of Summer, a 7-year-old gelding who was sold at a bankruptcy sale for $300, won a graded stakes race. The 15-1 shot’s winnings from the race represented a 230 times return on investment for his owners.

July 22, 2012:  Ramon Dominguez rides a record-tying six winners (he repeated the feat later that same meet).

July 27, 2013:  John Velazquez records his 694th winner at Saratoga, breaking Jerry Bailey’s record for the most all-time wins at the track.

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