07/21/2011 3:20PM

Old & new: The past is present everywhere you turn at historic Saratoga


When I visit other racetracks, it’s the tug of the future that attracts me. Who will win the feature race, set a track record, or draw off to win by 10 and become a horse to watch?

But at Saratoga, it’s what came before that lures me. I witnessed some of the history myself, such as Ruffian’s 1974 Spinaway and an aging, nearly blind Alfred Vanderbilt still listening to backstretch rhythms in the 1990’s.

Yet even Vanderbilt hadn’t begun attending races when Man o’ War suffered one of racing’s most famous defeats, to the aptly named Upset, in the 1919 Sanford. And it has been 130 years since Hall of Famer Hindoo won the 1881 Travers. By then, Saratoga was already in its 19th season.

Now Saratoga’s grandstand echoes anew with hoofbeats during morning workouts. The ancient building, with its creaky wood and ceiling fans and metalwork decorations, has seen it all before.

Embarking upon its 143rd season, Saratoga looks forward. But it’s the past that makes it so unique.

A post at the grandstand entrance shows the track was founded in 1864, a year after the first race meeting at Horse Haven across Union Avenue. 

Above: Saratoga’s signature turreted roof covers the grandstand. Below, an interior shot of the roof shows its wooden framework.

Above: A hallway by the clubhouse section of the track on the second floor.

Above:  The box seats area features wooden seats and TV monitors.

Above: The grandstand seats and stairs are also made of wood.

The Travers canoe in the infield lake is painted in the colors of the previous year’s winner. Above, the canoe in the colors of 2010 winner Afleet Express of Gainesway Farm. Below, a workshed at the track houses the canoes.

Above and below:  An old-fashioned changes board in the infield is still used for scratches and jockey changes before every race. Below, Melvin White makes changes to the board last year before hoisting it.

Above and below:  The grave of Go for Wand is near a flag pole just past the finish line she crossed first twice in her career. The yellow and purple flowers by the grave are the colors of Jane duPont Lunger’s Christiana Stable, which raced Go for Wand.

The base of a fountain that sits in front of the clubhouse entrance on the Nelson Avenue end of the track. The fountain is surrounded by lawn jockeys painted in the colors of the previous year’s Grade 1 winners.

Above and below: Behind the grandstand, a vase with flowers rests atop a stepping stone that was once used by track patrons who exited and entered horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century.

Above: Just across from the track, a kitchen at Horse Haven serves horsemen breakfast.

Above: Children hoping to get riders’ autographs often wait after races by the jockey lane, which leads to the jockeys’ room.

Above: Decorative ironwork below the clubhouse roof with the initials “SA” for Saratoga Assoociation, which predated the New York Racing Association. 

Above: Grazing horses alongside a grandstand stairway. 

Above: Wooden horse heads peer out at horses entering the track alongside the clubhouse.

Linda Weigel More than 1 year ago
Beautiful photos!
Paul More than 1 year ago
Barbara, although this blog only shows the close up photo of the original Iron Post that shows the founding of the track in 1864, the DRF Weekend Section (page 10) shows the post in a larger photo. Nothing says old versus new than in that larger view photo. The old would be the Iron Post stating the year 1864 and just to the left of the Iron Post, a sign posted on a Track's Structural Post saying ...... ATM this way. Pretty funny. The place is truly awesome. This will be my 23rd straight year of attending races at the track. Can't wait.
AJVRVC More than 1 year ago
I have to admit that I couldn't immediately 'place' all your photos, but most were familiar. Many times we come out to the track early and just walk around and admire the architectural details, especially in the clubhouse, where some of the massive wood beams must date all the way back to the last time the track was rebuilt after a fire. As for the wood floors and stairs-about 20 years ago when my then 4 and 5 year old sons came to the races with me we were sitting in the granstand and we all took off our shoes and socks looking to somehow be cooler in the August heat. And it was the kids who noticed that the worn smooth wood floor (long since replaced in that section, I think) was actually hot to the touch, like a dog's belly!....Your wonderful pictures always hit me where I live, as the saying goes. Thanks Barbara.
Anne More than 1 year ago
How quickly we forget all the historic and unique buildings and other past symbols that make Saratoga so special. Thank you for bringing them all back to life in your blog. They are fabulous photos to share for those that have never been. Still trying to get my friend from Vancouver to visit. This going on 20 years. Hopefully this IS the summer. Once he sees these photos, his mind might be made up! Especially when he sees YOU took them. Thank you for the insight for sharing a bit of Saratoga with all of us.
Scott H More than 1 year ago
I grew up in Saratoga. My dad used to take us to the track every year. For those of you who have not been there and love the races it is the best place in the world to attend for horse racing. There is something for everyone. Be it the picnic tables behind the stands or the club house. Go to breakfast and watch the workouts. Its an amazing place with a wonderful history. I will miss it this year.
Delrene Sims More than 1 year ago
Thank you so much for these unique and wonderful views of Saratoga. I was there and walked the racetrack ( it was in October and there was a thoroughbred sale going on that day). Very interesting and the colors of the trees were amazing. (I'm from Ca) so I love the East Coast in the fall. We had dinner at Hattie's. Even though I was there for only a day, I loved it and I vow to come back during the racing season - I bought your book at a book store somewhere in the downtown area. I have wonderful memories of that day.
thomas h graff More than 1 year ago
I first came to saratoga in 1987 and immediately fell in love with the race track and all the surrounding area. Having been a fan of racing since 1977, and having been to a great many other tracks all across the country, none has left the impression that saratoga has. Each year when opening day arrives I picture in my mind the walk up to the grandstand entrance and all the other wonderful images I have of the most impressive race meet in the country. I hope the 2011 meet is another complete success as well as all the years to follow.
Linda More than 1 year ago
Saratoga is a magical place, the incredible beauty and the feeling of yesteryear all rolled into one. I love the town as well, quaint and well appointed. I look forward to the trip (a 3 hour drive for me) every year. Your pictures beckon us all to make the journey. Many thanks.
RoMo More than 1 year ago
Ms Barb .. .. Thanks again for opening the portal that allows some of us to go back in time .. to pleasant memories.. Appreciate your "eye" for the Craft Art .. horse heads and hallways ..! Where human hands cut, placed and nailed ever board.. The sights, sounds and smell of large wooden venues .. are just different from the modern tilt-wall concrete ..? .. I guess I make all the oldsters tear up .. by mentioning the old carousels .. in the big old "wooden" carousel houses ..? Those places are all special .. that it's "The Spa" and it's history .. that much the better..
Mark L. More than 1 year ago
I will be making my annual trip back to the SPA next weekend for the 45th time. I enjoy being the first through gates so I can take the time to walk through the entire grounds for the first hour while the crowds are small and take in the historical surroundings. The photos really demonstrate that this is the summer place to be!! What a great place for people who love this sport. Thanks Barb for sharing these photos!!