This Week in Saratoga: Whitney 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: “Saratoga is as close to God’s heaven as one can get in the horse racing game. Santa Anita has its San Gabriel Mountains, Hialeah its flamingos and palms, and Belmont Park its style and elegance, but only Saratoga offers the 19th century.”  -William Nack

No racing week better celebrates and captures Saratoga’s 19th century spirit quite like Whitney week. The Whitney Stakes is named after the Whitney family, Saratoga’s equivalent of the royal family. The family has been an institution of Saratoga racing for the past century and any dive into the racetrack’s past inevitably includes the Whitneys. Read more here on the long standing relationship between the Whitney family and Saratoga.

Focusing on the present, Whitney week, in our opinion, is the quintessential Saratoga experience: great races at the track, and great events around town to compliment it. It does not have the overflowing crowds of Travers week or the baited-breath anticipation of opening weekend. It is the middle of the meeting, everyone has settled into a rhythm and the town showcases some of its best events.

In this edition of This Week in Saratoga, we focus on the Whitney, preview the Fasig-Tipton sale, review the hottest new restaurant to hit Spa City, and highlight many of the great events happening at and around the Spa. Happy Whitney week, everyone! 

This Week at the Track

Races of the Week: Year in and year out, the Whitney is the biggest race of the meet this side of the Travers, and don’t be fooled by this year’s small field. It is loaded with talent. Heavy favorite Frosted returns to the track following a sublime performance in the Met Mile in which he posted the highest Beyer number for a North American horse in nine years (roughly 375,000 races were run in that period). That effort was so impressive, however, handicappers may be looking for him to “bounce,” or return to earth after a huge performance. Those looking to beat the favorite will have viable options as the field includes Pimlico Special winner Noble Bird, the always honest Effinex, two time Saratoga winner Upstart and Zayat Stables’ El Kabeir.

Saturday’s stakes action is much more than just the Whitney. The Test, a seven-furlong Grade 1 for 3-year-old fillies, will feature Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Lewis Bay. The Lure, De La Rose, and Waya Stakes, all part of Saturday’s card, also feature deep and competitive fields.

Although the Hall of Fame induction ceremony is next week, the Hall of Fame Stakes will be run on Friday afternoon and feature Chad Brown’s turf star (and ThoroBros favorite) Camelot Kitten.

Finally, we have to highlight Thursday’s feature, the A.P. Smithwick, a 2 1/16-mile Grade 1 steeplechase event. One cool tradition in Saratoga is the weekly steeplechase races, featuring horses jumping fences in races typically exceeding two miles in distance. The Smithwick is the Travers of Saratoga’s steeplechase events. These races are a lot of fun to watch, but as a caveat, we have no idea how to bet them. 

Jockey autographs (ThoroBros photo)
Tradition of the Week: Jockeys are the human stars of the sport and no racing venue offers greater access to its stars than Saratoga. Nine to 12 times a day, approximately 20 minutes before each race, jockeys exit the jockeys’ room and navigate through the crowd and backyard area to the paddock. Kids seeking autographs line up eagerly awaiting the chance to meet their favorite jockeys. Each rider willingly signs autographs and often interacts with the fans. In five plus years of living by the jockeys’ room, we never saw a jockey refuse to provide an autograph. The only requirement is that you walk with them as they sign.

After the races, the jockeys return to the jockeys’ room passing by betting windows, beer vendors, and often a band. There is a walkway leading from the clubhouse back to the jockeys’ room which marks their intended path. Fans congratulate winning jockeys and many riders will stop and pose for pictures (especially if not rushing back to get ready for the next race—check the program). This walk back provides fans with another opportunity to seek autographs and also with the chance to request goggles from the riders. Especially towards the later races, many jockeys are willing to give a pair of their freshly muddied goggles to requesting fans—a cool and unique souvenir. Programs make for an easy surface for collecting autographs as do Saratoga posters and hats (which can be purchased from vendors outside the track), and jockey cards (sets available in on-track gift shops).  

Concession of the Week: A relatively quiet week for on-track activities allows us to highlight our favorite on-track concession. As “the summer place to be”, many people think of  Italian ice, lemonade, hot dogs and fried chicken as the staples of the race track diet. We have seen concessions come and go. Current track-goers list mac and cheese, Shake Shack and Hattie’s as the favorite go-to places for on-track eats. But there has been a constant figure at Saratoga in the 25 plus years we have graced its hallowed grounds. Often overlooked by the casual observer, but beloved by many regulars and members of the old guard, the Chowder Bar, located under grandstand section G, dishes out what we believe to be the unofficial food item of Saratoga Race Course: Manhattan clam chowder.

Manhattan clam chowder (ThoroBros photo)
We know, we know, it seems strange that hot seafood soup would take the lead for food vendors at a summer destination in the foothills of the Adirondacks. But people flock to the Chowder Bar and its standing tables day after day to get a bite of that clam-filled tomatoey-spicy goodness. Served with saltines, the tomato-based soup is full of potatoes, carrots, celery, onions and, of course, chopped clams to make a salty-spicy flavor like no other. So weather be damned—90 degrees or not, get yourself a cup of this chowder. 

Events of the Week: On Thursday, visit the community outreach booth which hosts the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. TRF is the largest equine sanctuary in the world, devoted to the rescue, retirement, rehabilitation, and retraining of Thoroughbred horses. Stop by and learn more about this great cause which does so much to protect race horses long after their racing days are finished.

Visit the NYRA Bets Lounge on Saturday at 11 a.m. to receive betting advice from some of the game’s best handicappers—including Peter Fornatale, Jonathan Kinchen, Mike Watchmaker and Travis Stone. Too early for your liking? Stop by the Lounge at 1 to get tips from Gabby Gaudet. The Maryland Racing handicapper has taken her talents to Saratoga this summer and is extremely knowledgeable. It’s definitely worth taking 20 minutes out of your day to learn from Gabby.

This Week’s Replay: The 2002 Test Stakes featured an epic stretch drive between You (Jerry Bailey) and Carson Hollow (Johnny V.) which will be long remembered as one of Saratoga’s best races. Making the race all the more memorable is the narration provided by our all-time favorite race track announcer, Tom Durkin—“a photo finish that doesn’t deserve a loser! ... What a horse race!” Enjoy!

2002 Test Stakes

 This Week in the Area

Around Town: To kick off the weekend, Andy Serling of NYRA is hosting his “Live at the Post” weekly radio show live from the Parting Glass at 8 p.m. on Thursday. This show always has great guests, and Andy provides his commentary on the weekend’s upcoming races. However, this week we have a feeling Andy’s star will be out-shined by everyone’s favorite Cajun; a man who is quickly building his own myth as the next Saratoga giant killer: Eric Guillot. Last weekend Guillot and Southern Equine Stables’ Laoban shocked the racing world with their 27-1 upset of the Jim Dandy. Known for his voodoo charms, eccentric personality, extremely quotable stage presence and the best backstretch cookout of the season, this interview is not one you want to miss.

But if you are looking for a more athletic form of entertainment, head over the Saratoga Recreational Center on Vanderbilt Avenue Thursday to check out the jockeys vs. horsemen in the All Star Charity Basketball Game. This great event supports the Race Track Chaplaincy, and is free admission. There are raffles and an auction during the contest to raise the much needed funds to support the great cause. It is a great time to see many of the industry’s stars compete in an unfamiliar sporting forum. Rumor has it that current race horse owner and former NBA All-Star Rashard Lewis will be playing; hopefully the Jocks can scoop him up for some much-needed height. It’s always a fun event, and not one to be missed for its often comical flair. 7 p.m. at the Saratoga Recreation Center, 15 Vanderbilt Avenue. Admission is free. Line: Jockeys -7.5.

In addition to the Whitney Handicap run at the races Saturday, the Whitney Cup Finals will be held at the polo grounds on Sunday. One of the biggest polo matches of the season is given the Whitney name to complete the town’s tribute to the patriarchal family of Saratoga Springs. The finals begin at 5:30 on Sunday at the polo fields on Nelson Avenue.

SPAC: For those of us looking to let loose this weekend and get away from the pageantry of a Saratoga socialite summer, SPAC is hosting a Snoop Dogg concert Sunday at 8 p.m.—the perfect antithesis to blue-blooded Whitney history.

Top Event: The biggest off-track event of the upcoming week is the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale which begins Monday evening and continues Tuesday. It is the first offering of yearlings around the country, and sets the stage for other yearling sales that take place in the fall in Kentucky. Only the strongest, best-bred and most correct yearlings are offered at this sale. This sale often provides new stallions their first opportunity to determine how buyers will receive their offspring. The best bloodlines in the business are represented, with marquee stallions like Tapit, Medaglia d'Oro and Pioneerof the Nile, and female lines that link to the foundational Phipps and Claiborne bloodlines.

Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale (Eclipse Sportswire)
The entire sale is a who's who of the sport. The pedigrees are premier, as are the buyers. Sheik Mohammad makes his yearly trip to Saratoga for the two-day sale, and often bids from a private room. International buyers, such as Gai Waterhouse and Al Shaqab Racing, make the trip to see if they can find the next star of the sport. Bob Baffert often makes an appearance to bid on behalf of his owners, including the Zayats and Kahleem Shah.

But aside from the regal bloodlines and stars of the sport, the sale is an event. Fasig-Tipton remodeled the sales pavilion a few years ago, and created a beautiful space. They even hold weddings there in the offseason. The outdoor walking ring provides a great opportunity to view the horses before they make their way into the auction ring and the hammer falls. There is large bar where you can watch the action on many televisions.

Of course, the best seat in the house is inside the pavilion itself. The auctioneer's ramble is intoxicating, and the action is impressive. After a Tapit colt sold for $2 million this past year, you could hear cheers from the victors. There is a great sense of pride from the buyers who are excited of the prospect of racing their newest purchase. Not to mention the fact that they now get to head to the luxurious buyers’ balcony and enjoy some champagne and fine eats.

Day Trips: If you are interested in getting out of Saratoga this week, we recommend a trip to Manchester, Vt. Although in another state, it is a relatively short one hour drive from town. This quaint Vermont town not only offers great views of the surrounding Green Mountains, but is also home to great shopping with many outlet stores, including J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, the Orvis flagship store, Tumi, Coach and many more.

The town also features some great dining locations, including Zoey’s Deli (great sandwiches with house-made bread); the Raven’s Den (steakhouse serving local products with a great salad bar) and Chanticleer’s (a European fine-dining experience that leans towards rustic Swiss cuisine). Manchester is also a great destination for some recreation, including tubing down the slow-moving Battenkill River, hiking the surrounding mountains (Lye Brook Falls is great, easy hike that ends at a gorgeous waterfall), great golf courses (Manchester Country Club and Equinox to name two) and right up the road is Bromley Mountain, which has alpine slides and zip lines for those with a truly adventurous spirit.

Manchester has plenty to offer for anyone looking to get a Vermont summer experience. Whether you are single, a couple or a family, there is plenty to do or see just across the border.

This Week in Food and Drink

This Week’s Food Profile:  On Saturday we visited the new downtown restaurant Fish at 30 Lake for the first time. It was very, very good. The atmosphere is welcoming and approachable, and the staff was extremely attentive and accommodating. Additionally, the location is perfect, just a two or three minute walk from the downtown bars and restaurants. We arrived a little bit before our reservation, and enjoyed a drink on the couches outside on Lake Avenue, which was a lovely way to start the evening. The cocktail menu was excellent, and the lychee on lake and rye cocktails got high marks. We were a party of eight, but we were seated right at 9, which was the time of our reservation, and the restaurant was very full. 

The menu is extensive – but focused on seafood – and in addition to the standard menu, there were a number of very tasty-sounding specials. With a party of eight, we got to try a number of the different options, and they were all very good. But there were three things that stole the show: the raw bar, the tuna nachos and the Portuguese clams. All three are appetizer-type dishes, but the portions were generous (the raw bar is served individually), and were really top-notch. The entrees were solid, if a bit unspectacular compared to the appetizers. That said, the Thai mussels and the scallops oreganato come highly recommended. This is a great restaurant to visit after the races, or any other time you are in Saratoga. Here is the website; calling ahead for reservations is highly recommended.

This Week’s Drink Profile: After Fish at 30 Lake, we went to 9 Maple Ave. for some post-dinner cocktails. 9 Maple is amazing; the perfect bar if you want a well-crafted drink away from (or before wading into) the hubbub of Caroline Street. There was a very cheap ($2) cover because 9 Maple was hosting live jazz that night. The music was great, the drinks were spectacular (apparently the espresso martini was incredible), and the ambiance was perfect. It does have a tendency to get a little crowded, as the space is somewhat constricted, but we were eventually able to get space at the bar, even though we arrived around 11 p.m. If you like good cocktails, good bourbon (and other spirits) or good music, 9 Maple Ave. is the place for you. The website is here, but the location is pretty self-explanatory (it’s at 9 Maple Avenue in downtown Saratoga).

Food and Drink Events: On Friday, Aug. 5 at the track the Taste NY series will feature NY craft beers. It goes from noon to 5 p.m. at the Saratoga Pavilion at the racetrack.

On Saturdays, including Saturday, Aug. 6, you can build your own burger and enjoy a beer for just $12 at Nostalgia Ale House and Wine Bar, 113 Route 9P in Malta, N.Y. It’s only a short drive from Saratoga, and you can go after the Whitney – the special runs from 4 to 10 p.m. More details can be found here.

This Week in Saratoga History

Aug. 7, 1965:  The great Kelso, at the age of 8, wins the Whitney Stakes for an unprecedented third time. He first won the race four years earlier in 1961, where it was actually contested at Belmont Park. In the 1965 edition, Kelso rallied late to win by a nose. It would be his last start ever at Saratoga.

Aug. 6, 1988:  Personal Ensign became the first filly since Lady’s Secret to beat the boys in the Whitney. She toyed with a three-horse field that featured future Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Gulch, pulling away to win by two lengths. With her victory, Personal Ensign became the first filly since Ruffian to start her career with 10 straight victories. She of course would go on to win three more races, culminating with a run for the ages in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and retire as an undefeated champion.

Courtesy of Saratoga Springs Historical Museum
Aug. 9, 1941: Nothing historically significant happened, however, these two gents did attend the races. We thought it was pretty cool picture. It also provides some insight into how we would have looked forming our exotic wagers behind the clubhouse seats in 1941—something we do today in this exact location.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!