Beginner’s Guide to the Saratoga Race Course Meet

Events / Travel
Fans enjoy a day at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Saratoga Springs has long been a summer playground for sports fans: the upstate New York town is home to one of the most storied racetracks in the world, and it’s been mecca for horse racing fans for hundreds of years. If you’re planning a trip to the Spa this summer (and don’t worry, we’ll explain why it’s called the Spa!) you’re in the right place for a quick guide on everything the town and track have to offer.

Who: Elite Thoroughbred racehorses and their human entourages

Busy paddock at Saratoga. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Saratoga is an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to racehorses. Some of the top horses in the nation, along with the most promising 2-year-old racehorses around, will spend their summer in Saratoga. That’s because the meet is packed with the highest levels of races (known as stakes races), many of which offer an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November. Naturally, these horses each come with a human support team, so you’ll see the best trainers, jockeys, and grooms at Saratoga as well as get the chance to rub shoulders with some of the most prominent horse owners in the game.

Fun fact: Saratoga’s first race meet was the brainchild of gambler, casino owner, ex-boxing champion, and future Congressman John “Old Smoke” Morrissey. The meet was held just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg on Aug. 3, 1863 and lasted four days, making the track the oldest sports venue in the United States.

What: Both “The Spa” and “The Graveyard of Champions”

With more than 150 years of history, it’s no wonder that Saratoga has picked up a couple of nicknames along the way. The track’s two most used are The Spa and The Graveyard of Champions – and the latter isn’t nearly as dire as it sounds, so don’t worry! The nickname refers to the fact that some of the most famous racehorses in American history have lost races at Saratoga: Man o’ War, Secretariat, American Pharoah, and Gallant Fox, just to name a few. In fact, local lore tells us that Saratoga gifted sports with the term “upset,” since that was the name of the horse who defeated the mighty Man o’ War. It’s just one reason that bettors love the races at Saratoga so much: when favorites lose, savvy gamblers win big.

The track and town are colloquially called The Spa because the city sits on top of natural springs with waters rumored to bring good health to humans and horses. Saratoga became a playground for the rich throughout the Gilded Age thanks to the mineral water and the race meet, and there are still bathhouses and drinking pavilions galore throughout the town.

Fun fact: on Aug. 23, 2008, Slambino, Blazing Dynamo, and Key Event set a record payout for New York when they returned a $.50 trifecta (a bet that selects the first three finishers in a race) that yielded $26,478.50.

When: July 15 to Sept. 6

Saratoga is called the “Summer Place to Be” for good reason: the meet lasts from mid-July through Labor Day, and it draws vacationers and racing industry professionals throughout the season. Saturdays tend to have the most prestigious races, and the highlights of the 2021 meet are below.

July 17 – Diana Stakes and Sanford Stakes

July 24 – Coaching Club American Oaks and Caress Stakes

July 31 – Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap, Bowling Green Stakes, and Jim Dandy Stakes

Aug. 7 – Whitney Stakes, Longines Test Stakes, Glens Falls Stakes, Saratoga Derby, and Fasig-Tipton Lure Stakes

Aug. 14 – Saratoga Special Presented by Miller Lite Stakes and Fourstardave Handicap

Aug. 21 – Alabama Stakes, Lake Placid Stakes, and Smart N Fancy Stakes

Aug. 28 – Runhappy Travers Stakes, Ballston Spa Stakes, Forego Stakes, H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes, Ketel One Ballerina Stakes, Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infinity, and Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Stakes

Sept. 4 – Prioress Stakes and Saranac Stakes

Sept. 6 – Hopeful Stakes and Bernard Baruch Handicap

Fun fact: Seven races at Saratoga qualify their winners to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships: the Whitney, the Fourstardave, the Personal Ensign, the Ballerina, the Sword Dancer, the Flower Bowl, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Where: Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains and located approximately 40 miles north of Albany, Saratoga is a place of serene natural beauty. The track and town are easily accessible by plane, car, and train and is (relatively) equidistant to Boston, New York, and Montreal, Canada.

Fun fact: Amtrak trains go directly to Saratoga Springs from both New York City and Montreal, making the destination an easy trip for city dwellers without cars.

Why: National history

Native American people, namely the Mohawk and Abenaki tribes, have long celebrated the area now known as Saratoga for its natural springs; and when the British built a fort in the region in 1691, they, too, revered the spring water for its restorative properties. The first permanent U.S.-British settlement was built in 1776, and the 1777 Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Even before the advent of horse racing in 1863, Saratoga had become a haven for the rich and famous due to the mineral springs in the area, and the Roosevelt Baths are still revered as a spa retreat to this day.

Once horse racing reached Saratoga, the city became even more of a playground for the rich and famous. One local icon was Marylou Whitney, a philanthropist who dedicated herself to the town of Saratoga and shepherded the city and racetrack through the 1960s and 70s when the track was at its economic low point. Thanks in no small part to her efforts, both Saratoga Springs and Saratoga Race Course are thriving.

Fun fact: Saratoga Race Course was named in the top ten greatest sports venues in the world by Sports Illustrated.


What to Expect in 2021

Thanks to high vaccination rates in New York, Saratoga will enjoy a “back to normal” summer in 2021 and operate at 100% capacity. Even better? Fans who show proof of vaccination will receive free grandstand entry on opening day! Non-vaccinated fans are also welcome to the track provided that they wear face masks.

Fans enjoy live racing at Saratoga. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

The New York Racing Association is also opening three new hospitality areas at Saratoga in 2021: the Spa Verandas, the Tailgate at the Turn picnic area, and a newly expanded section of the Stretch. You can learn more about them right here.

If you’re planning to attend the races several times throughout the meet, it’s probably a good idea to grab a season pass, either for the Grandstand or the Clubhouse: the former is just $50 and the latter $75.

If you’re going to take box seats for an afternoon (and the view is incredible!) make sure you’re aware of the dress code: for men, a suit or sports jacket are encouraged on weekdays and required on weekends, and neither shorts nor jeans are ever permitted. For ladies, the no shorts rule stands and includes rompers; jeans and abbreviated wear also are not allowed.

The first race on most days (with the exception of Travers day, Whitney day, and closing weekend) will be at 1:05 p.m. ET, and racing will be held five days a week after opening week from Wednesday through Sunday.


Wanna Bet?

It’s incredibly easy to bet Saratoga, even if you’re not able to attend. It’s legal in 37 states to bet from home using what’s called an “advance deposit wagering” platform – essentially an app or website that allows you to load up your account and bet from wherever you like. One piece of advice: the key word here is “advance,” so make sure to set your account up as early as possible since sometimes it takes a day or more to process the funds. The official wagering platform Saratoga is NYRA Bets, and there are some pretty enticing promotions in store for the meet, including:

Travers Bankroll Builder

Earn $20 each Saturday betting the selected Saturday Saratoga Stakes July 17 – Aug. 21. Full bankroll earned credited Aug. 27 in time for Travers.

Saratoga Fans in search of a winner. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

$2K Saratoga Pick 5 Hit/Split

Each Friday of the meet if you hit the Saratoga Late Pick 5 hit/split $2,000

$4K Saratoga/Del Mar Hit/Split

Each Sunday of the meet, hit the Pick 6 at Saratoga or Del Mar to hit/split $1,000 bonus. Hit both Pick 6s to hit/split $2,000. Bonus capped at $4,000 per player per day.

All promos require an opt-in to win.

NYRA Bets will also have online contests every Saturday and two larger on-track/online contests on Aug. 7 and Sept. 4.

If you’re new to betting via app, the team at America’s Best Racing also put our heads together to provide some Dos and Don’ts for betting online, and we even have the leading tool in the sport for figuring out how to make your bets and what they’ll cost: ABR’s Gambling Calculator, presented by 1/ST Bet.

Looking for more information on how to start playing the ponies? We have a post called “Betting on Horse Racing, Explained” with a focus on bettors just like you. Here’s a taste to whet your appetite:

The Basics

Win bet – A bet on a horse to finish first.

Place bet – A bet on a horse to finish first or second.

Show bet A bet on a horse to finish in the money; third or better.

In the money – A horse that finishes first, second, or third.

Across the board – A bet on a horse to win, place, and show. If the horse wins, the bettor collects three ways; if second, two ways (place, show); and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets. It's actually three bets.

Morning line – The odds that the track handicapper predicts a horse will be to win the race when it starts.

Fun fact: the biggest payout for a $2 win bet in the Travers Stakes came in 1945 when Adonis returned $53.50 to savvy horseplayers.


Must-dos:

Saratoga really does offer something for everyone, and below is a quick list of some of our favorite things to check out at the track and around town while you’re visiting.

At the track

Morning training

Morning at Saratoga (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. throughout the meet, fans are welcome to watch elite Thoroughbreds train at the Whitney Viewing Stand at Oklahoma Training Track. Trust and believe there is nothing as beautiful as watching as sunrise bakes off the mountain fog enveloping the track as the silence is broken only by the pounding of hooves. It’s something everyone should experience at least once.

The jockey walk

There’s a walkway that leads from the jockeys’ room in the Grandstand backyard to the winner’s circle, and it’s the perfect opportunity to snap a photo or snag an autograph from some of horse racing’s greatest riders after their races. It’s honestly one of the coolest opportunities in sports – what other venue gives fans so much access to the athletes? It’s a definite destination for a day at the track.

The Big Red Spring

One of Saratoga’s famous mineral water springs is located right at the northwest corner of the racetrack. It’s your chance to taste the waters that put Saratoga on the map, and all we’ll say is that it’s an experience that you’ll never forget. Probably, no, definitely take video.

The paddock

While access to the paddock is reserved for horse owners, trainers, jockeys, and media, fans are welcome to line the rail surrounding the saddling area to see the Thoroughbreds prepare for their races. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot, and both the horse- and people-watching are top notch.

Around town

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Renovated Racing Hall of Fame.

Located on Union Avenue just opposite of the racetrack, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is a must-visit destination for horse lovers and history buffs alike. With interactive exhibits, incredible objects, and a state-of-the-art and brand-new Hall of Fame, a morning at the museum is the perfect way to whet your appetite for an afternoon of racing. New Hall of Famers American Pharoah, Todd Pletcher, and Jack Fisher will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame on Aug. 6; while information about live attendance is still pending, a livestream will be shown at www.racingmuseum.org.

Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sales

Half elite horse auction, half cocktail party, the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale is a must-do. This year’s dates are Aug. 9 and 10, and if you’re in town it’s a must.

Inside the sales ring, promising young Thoroughbreds change hands for millions of dollars (in 2019, the last time the auction took place, 182 horses changed hands for $55,547,000) while a party takes place outside complete with food and drinks. Admission is free (but food and beverage are not) and you’ll have the chance to rub shoulders with some tycoons, trainers, and even heads of state.

Caroline Street

Looking for a big night out? The best place to party in Saratoga is Caroline Street, which is home to some of the most popular bars and restaurants in the city.

Concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center

From the opera to the Jonas Brothers, there’s a concert at SPAC for everyone. It’s a great way to cap off a winning day at the races!


There’s so much more to do around town during the Saratoga meet – check back at ABR for more guides on how to plan your perfect Spa getaway.

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