This Week in Saratoga: Travers Week

Events / Travel
(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 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: “The Travers is one of those good American rituals. The hallowed ‘Who do you like – and why?’ would be just as valid if the field included Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew or Adirondack trail horses. The main thing is going to the track, surrounded by lush woods and blessed with the enthusiasm of a county fair.”  George Vecsey, Aug. 14, 1983

It’s the most anticipated week of the meet, leading up to the Mid-Summer Derby, the crown jewel of Saratoga racing, the 147th running of the Travers Stakes. It is the day we circle on the calendar every year, and has been the backdrop of some of our fondest Saratoga memories.  Annual 5:30 a.m. wake up calls, followed by chugging Red Bulls while standing outside the front gate holding the same blue checkered table cloth in hopes of claiming prized territory (more on that below). “Three noses on the wire” in the “dramatic renewal” of the 1998 Travers. Advising Kenny Mayne on how to hedge his Quality Road Pick 4 single in 2009. Barn-made gumbo in the shadows of a voodoo doll. Holy Bull, Point Given, Street Sense, and American Pharoah. Waiting for the photo to be developed in 2012, only to learn that two canoes would occupy the infield. An epic storm in 2004. The memories could fill up pages. 

This year’s Travers features the first 14-horse field since 1977—meaning George Vecsey’s “Who do you like—and why?” is a very appropriate question. Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator is the morning-line favorite, but there are plenty of other options, including Belmont winner Creator (at 15-1!), a pair of Bob Baffert trainees, Jim Dandy winner Laoban, and the very consistent Destin.

And if the Travers isn’t enough, there are six other stakes races (five Grade 1s and a Grade 2) on Saturday’s super card. 

While the racing is the reason for the excitement, no week draws bigger crowds or generates more buzz around town than Travers week. In this edition of This Week in Saratoga, we highlight the Travers and other great racing action, look back at the history of Saratoga’s Super Bowl, feature the Taste of Travers event Friday night, and suggest some great venues and events around town. Happy Travers week, everyone!

This Week at the Track

Tradition of the Week: We all know about the Travers, but the most entertaining race on Saturday occurs hours earlier, where seasoned competitors of all stripes — old and young, male and female, hung over and not hung over — compete for the unequaled prize of snagging a wooden picnic table in a dusty, tree covered field. This race, of course, comprises a Saratoga tradition unlike any other: the run for the picnic tables.

The run for the picnic tables is a quintessential Saratoga event. As anyone who has visited Saratoga knows, the backyard is a free-for-all. Most of the picnic tables are free, and available to the first one that claims it — similar to the way land was claimed in the Wild West. But just like those hardened frontiersmen who laid claim to the lands west of the Mississippi, the Saratoga run for the picnic tables is not for the faint of heart.

Courtesy of ThoroBros
It starts at about 5:30 in the morning, when people begin to congregate around the Saratoga gates. Everyone has something to mark their territory — newspapers, coolers, tablecloths, towels, we even saw someone use a shoe once. They actually left their shoe on a picnic table to claim it. As 7 a.m. grows near, the anticipation builds.

The real fun starts when the gates open. People of all ages spring into action like they were shot out of a cannon. Breaking through the gates at a dead sprint, everyone scatters to find the best spot, as those further back in the line fidget anxiously, hoping to find even one, partially broken, unshaded picnic table with no view of a TV. It’s quite the spectacle.

Even though attendance Saturday is limited to 50,000 people, there will be plenty of competition for those limited tables. It’s going to be awesome. We recommend getting a good night’s sleep, staying hydrated, and keeping those elbows high. For those of you who will be the mix Saturday morning (and that includes us), we wish you the best of luck and offer you these tips to help you finish the morning perched atop your wooden throne.

Races of the Week: Other than the Breeders’ Cup and Belmont and Kentucky Derby day super cards, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better day of racing, top to bottom, than what Saratoga has assembled for Saturday. Yes, the Travers is the undisputable highlight, but there are six other stakes races (five of them Grade 1) featuring some of America’s best horses. 

Of course, we’ll start with the Travers, which drew a full field featuring Santa Anita Derby, Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator (who also won the Saratoga Special here at the Spa as a 2-year-old).  Exaggerator figures to be the favorite, but with no rain in the forecast, many wise guys will try to beat the horse whose best races have come in the mud. Belmont 1-2 finishers Creator and Destin will again challenge Exaggerator, but both of them will need to turn the tables on Jim Dandy surprise winner Laoban. This time, however, Laoban will not be alone on the lead as Bob Baffert, who has fared poorly in this race over the years, returns with Haskell runner-up American Freedom and the lightly raced but highly regarded Arrogate. Chad Brown’s Connect, winner of the Curlin, also figures to be on the lead. The very talented Gift Box, who was stuck on the rail and could not get by Connect in the Curlin, has our full attention at 12-1, as does the hard-knocking Governor Malibu (also 12-1) who encountered trouble in both the Belmont and Jim Dandy. My Man Sam, Forever d’Oro, and Derby third-place finisher Gun Runner also join the fray. This should be a great betting race with numerous viable options. So, “who do you like—and why?” 

In addition to the Travers, Saturday features the $1 million Grade 1 Longines Sword Dancer, a mile-and-a-half marathon on the turf. International star turned domestic hero Flintshire will be the heavy favorite.

Also of note on Saturday is the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa, featuring the return of undefeated 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli. After winning the Belmont Oaks in July 2015, the sky was the limit for Chad Brown’s 3-year-old superstar. However, a bout of laminitis had her fighting for her life. More than a year later Lady Eli has made a remarkable recovery and by all reports is training extremely well for her comeback. It will be a special moment at Saratoga when she takes to the track on Saturday.

Fans of sprint races will get to see the best of both the filly and mare and male divisions with the Ballerina (for fillies, featuring talented 3-year-old Carina Mia), the Priority One Jets Forego (for the older males) and the Ketel One King’s Bishop (for 3-year-olds).

I'm a Chatterbox and trainer Larry Jones. (Eclipse Sportswire)
It’s quality, not quantity, in the Personal Ensign, a dirt route for older fillies and mares.  A quartet of Grade 1 winners—Cavorting, Curalina, I’m a Chatterbox, and Forever Unbridled—are among a five-horse field that will do battle in this anticipated star studded event.

Before the excitement of Saturday, Travers eve features a unique New York-bed day at the track. Every race, including six stakes totaling $1.5 million, is restricted to horses bred in the Empire State.

This Week’s Events: The annual Red Jacket ceremony, Saratoga’s equivalent of Canton’s yellow sports coat, takes place Friday near the winners’ circle following the 4th race. This year’s honorees are legendary owner Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott (of Cigar, Royal Delta and Drosslemeyer fame). In addition to receiving their red jackets, Campbell and Mott will have plaques placed in Saratoga’s Walk of Fame, honoring Spa legends. If you find the time this week, stroll through the Walk of Fame to read about Saratoga’s racing heroes.

Fridays at the paddock bar have been lively all meet long, but this week’s version should be tremendous. Combine the excitement of Travers eve, discounted bourbon and a late 7:15 p.m. final post, and you have the recipe for a great start to your Friday night. 

On Saturday, a limited number of fans will have the opportunity to meet Tom Durkin and get a piece of memorabilia signed by the legendary track announcer. Tickets are first-come, first-serve and available at the Fourstardave Sports Bar between 10:30 and 11:45 a.m. on Saturday. The event starts at 2 p.m. in the Durkin Replay Center.

This Week’s Replay: We’ve been in attendance for the last 21 Travers, but there is no question which one is our favorite. The 1998 Travers featured Victory Gallop, the Belmont winner and spoiler of Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid, Coronado’s Quest and longshot Raffie’s Majesty. Coronado’s Quest came into the race off four straight graded stakes scores, including the Dwyer and the Haskell Invitational. He was known for his difficult temperament, which had earned him the nickname “The Bad Boy of Racing.” Raffie’s Majesty, our sleeper pick that day, was an outsider, having been beaten by others in the race in both the Belmont and the Jim Dandy.  

Coronado’s Quest, piloted by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, prevailed in a three-way photo finish that was perfectly narrated by the legendary Tom Durkin. Durkin’s call was pitch-perfect, rising in a crescendo as Victory Gallop summoned one more bid and Raffie’s Majesty closed from far back on the outside. The call culminated with an iconic proclamation: “Coronado’s Quest, Victory Gallop, and Raffie’s Majesty, three noses on the line in a dramatic renewal of the Travers!”

This Week in the Area

Around Town:  It’s the Travers Festival! The weeklong celebration of Saratoga’s biggest race kicks off on Wednesday, Aug. 24 (before our weekly publication) and continues through the weekend. To begin with, its Travers 1864 Restaurant Week, so if you get into town by Thursday, Aug. 25, see if your favorite Saratoga restaurant is featuring specials. The list of participating restaurants is here, and if you visit you get a three course meal for $18.64 (because the first Travers was run in 1864!).  Unfortunately, restaurant week ends on Aug. 25, so if you are reading this on Thursday, make your reservation now!

In terms of weekend events, there are simply too many things to do. This weekend is the culmination of the Saratoga party scene and the climax of each summer’s social scene. The only problem is that Saturday also includes a 13-race marathon day at the track beginning at 11:35 a.m. Making it the full day (especially if you begin with the epic run for the picnic tables) and into the night is a real achievement.

But accomplishing that achievement is really worth it. This will be the busiest weekend of the summer, and there is plenty of live music and events all over town. On Friday and Saturday night there is live music at One Caroline, Bailey’s, Harvey’s, Putnam Den, Gaffney’s, Caroline Street Pub, 9 Maple, and Druther’s, among others. Also, after the races (or later in the evening, if the mood strikes you), stop by the Horseshoe Inn Bar and Grill as an alternative to Siro’s – it’s a little more spacious, and will have live music and a more laid back atmosphere.

SPAC:  Not a big week at SPAC, although Florida Georgia Line does come to town on Sunday, Aug. 28.  Janet Jackson was scheduled to come on Friday, Aug. 26, but Saratoga would have imploded on itself if there was Janet Jackson concert the night before the Travers, so that was postponed. There is also something called Kidz Bop at SPAC on Saturday afternoon, but everyone reading this post is going to be at the races anyhow so I didn’t do any further research into what that was even though I was super-duper curious.

Day Trips: Saturday is going to be a long day. So on Sunday, it might be nice to take a day trip (or, if possible, an overnight trip) to somewhere a little more serene. About an hour east of Saratoga is Manchester, Vt., an idyllic town set in Vermont’s Green Mountains. The town has a number of really fabulous restaurants and inns, and provides quick and easy access to all manner of outdoor activities – hiking, biking, fishing, etc. It also has some of the best shopping in the area, with all kinds of designer outlets. No matter what you did in Saratoga over the weekend, this is a perfect place to go to unwind.

This Week in Food and Drink

This Week’s Food Profile: Sperry’s has been a Caroline Street staple since 1932 and is the go-to place for many people in the racing industry for a good meal or drink after the races or before a night on the town. In the same location since its inception at 30 ½ Caroline St., Sperry’s has an old-style feel inside with the original dark oak bar and a white-and-black checkered floor reminiscent of the 1930s New York style. Sperry’s offers a classic American menu that builds on and improves culinary selections that have long been part of their menu. Great steaks and seafood are the big draws as Sperry’s has its own raw bar and on Thursdays they offer $1 oyster special while they last. The New York strip with a bordelaise and fingerling potatoes and the diver scallops served with chantrelles, chorizo and pickled rhubarb are two must-have entrees.

In addition to the good eats inside, the outdoor seating and expansive outdoor bar offer the quintessential Saratoga experience that so many city-dwellers look for: dinner (or drinks) outside in the refreshing, upstate air under the cover of beautiful trees. The bar is usually quite full, and a great place to start your night downtown before heading to some of the music venues around town. The bar also serves up some great specialty and classic cocktails, including traditional mint juleps and old fashioneds, along with a blueberry lemonade made with Stoli Blu, St. Germain, lemonade and club soda.

Sperry’s is a great experience and another Saratoga tradition that keeps getting better with age.

This Week’s Drink Profile: The Saratoga scene on any night is all about the best music. In our opinion, the bar that gets the best acts is hands down Dango Fitzgerald’s (aka Dango’s). Located at 38 Caroline St., this bar is in the heart of the action for any night on the town. It offers an indoor bar with a sports-bar type atmosphere with standing bars, high tables and plenty of TVs to catch a game. But it’s the outdoor area that gives Dango’s a leg up on the competition. Two bars outside surround the largest dance floor on Caroline Street which is covered by a large tent to ensure the party keeps going even in inclement weather. The upper bar, located closest to Caroline Street, offers full service for all patrons, including those seated in the VIP sections. The lower bar, located closest to the dance floor, is cash only and offers only liquor and bottled beers. But the key draw is the music. In addition to the large dance floor, Dango’s consistently brings in acts that can really play, including our personal favorite: Funk Evolution.

Dango’s is consistently the most packed bar on Caroline Street, especially while outdoor music is allowed (it must end at midnight according to a city ordinance). If you are looking to shake your groove thing, come on out any night during the weekend to get down and boogie.

Taste of Travers: A new event this year during Travers Week that has been getting a lot of attention is the Taste of Travers Celebration. For years, Travers eve has come and passed without a premier event that other big race days such as the Derby and Breeders Cup feature.  Recognizing this need, and also trying to help a great cause, Prestwick Chase, an area senior living community, developed a fun themed event to celebrate with the horsemen while benefitting the area’s senior citizens. The inaugural Taste of Travers features top food and drink while honoring last year’s winners of the Travers: Keen Ice, owners Jerry and Linda Crawford of Donegal Racing, trainer Dale Romans and jockey Javier Castellano.

It will be held on Friday of Travers week from 6 to 10 p.m. at the National Museum of Dance.  The evening will feature special top-shelf tastings and an open bar by William Grant & Sons, E. & J. Gallo and Empire Merchants. Gourmet food stations are presented by Old Daley Custom Catering, and will be themed after past Travers winners (Lemon Drop Kid is workable, but good luck with modeling an appetizer after Bernardini). Old Travers replays will be shown on loop to get guests excited for Saturday’s big race. Attendees can dance to the music of local celebrities Grand Central Station. The event will also feature a photo booth, cigar tasting by Smokin’ Sam’s, and a handicapping session with Bruno De Julio of Racing with Bruno fame. As if all of that is not enough, event organizers also hinted at a “big surprise” to end the night—it’s not “living or breathing”, so don’t expect Keen Ice to gallop in--but we were told it will be well received by those in attendance.

The proceeds from this event will support the Adult & Senior Center of Saratoga and help fund many of the activities they offer such as art classes and day trips. The Senior Center also hopes to use the proceeds to expand their Community Connections Program which offers services to senior citizens in area such as helping them run errands, driving them to doctor appointments, and more.

Executive Director of the Saratoga Senior Center, Lois Celeste is ecstatic about the event.  “When I was first approached about bringing another gala to Saratoga Springs my initial reaction was no. In fact we turned down Prestwick Chase’s offer to underwrite this event for two years before Fred McNeary convinced us that we needed to be similar to other horse communities and stakes races and have a true celebration of the Travers Stakes and the Travers winner here in Saratoga Springs. The event is beyond anything we ever expected.”

Organizers expect over 500 people to be at the event, but there are a limited number of tickets still available at We highly encourage you to get your tickets now and help make this great event for a great cause a huge success.

What: Taste of Travers

When: 6-10 Friday night, Aug. 26

Where: National Museum of Dance, Saratoga


Twitter: @tasteoftravers

This Week in Travers History

Here is a look back at some memorable dates in the history of the Travers:

Aug. 2, 1864: The Travers, named after Saratoga’s initial president, William Travers, is the first race run at the “new” Saratoga Race Course. The winner? Kentucky, who fittingly was owned in part by …William Travers. Kentucky was the first of 23 horses to win the Travers and later be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

1865: Maiden becomes the first of seven fillies to win the Travers.

1874: The first dead heat in Travers history occurs, between Attila and Acrobat, but there was a run-off race and Attila was declared the winner.  In 2012, a second dead heat occurred between longshot Golden Ticket and favorite Alpha.

1920: Man o’ War wins the Travers in a record time that stood for 42 years. A replica of the Man o’ War Cup is presented annually to the winning connections of the Travers.

1941: Whirlaway becomes the first and only horse to win the Triple Crown and Travers.

1979: General Assembly, the son of Secretariat, wins the Travers in a record time of 2:00 flat, a record that still stands today.

1992: Thunder Rumble becomes the first New York-bred to win the Travers since the filly Ruthless in 1867.

2001: Point Given becomes the first horse to win four straight million-dollar races, capturing the Travers in impressive fashion.

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