Updated on 09/16/2011 8:05AM

Has success spoiled Saratoga?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - People start arriving at Saratoga Race Course as early as 7 a.m. to stake out a position where they will spend the afternoon. They may be content to spread out a blanket on a small patch of ground where they can't see a live horse and can barely see a television monitor. For much of the last week they had to endure oppressive heat and humidity. Saturday they will cope with even longer-than-usual lines at betting windows, concession stands, and rest rooms as nearly 60,000 people pack the track for the Travers Stakes.

It is an extraordinary phenomenon. This is, after all, an era when Thoroughbred racing's popularity has declined; many tracks depend on simulcasts to generate their business, so that live racing is almost an anachronism. But the public can't get enough of Saratoga, and visitors gladly put up with inconveniences and discomforts to be here.

The track produces attendance and betting figures that once would have been unimaginable. Wagering on the races this season has averaged $16.6 million per day - a figure that will smash the North American record set here last year.

However, Saratoga's boom has come at a price. The massive crowds have changed the character of the place, and some of the track's longtime loyalists will say that success has spoiled Saratoga.

For many decades, the appeal of Saratoga was its intimacy. When the racing fraternity gathered here in August, the charms of town and track were a well-kept secret. The crowds at Saratoga were small enough that horses were saddled under the elm trees in the paddock, where fans could stand within an arm's length of them.

But in the 1980's the outside world discovered Saratoga. Offtrack betting had given people in the region year-round exposure to the sport via television and they were hungry to see the real thing. Vacationers started flocking here, too. Barry Schwartz, chairman of the New York Racing Association, is also the CEO of Calvin Klein, and he said, "In my business we call certain stores 'destination resources.' Saratoga has become a destination spot in New York. Everybody planning a trip through the Adirondacks comes through here."

Why does Saratoga appeal so strongly to non-hardcore fans, while most other tracks can't entice newcomers at all? Its mystique has several components. Saratoga offers what is arguably the best day-to-day racing in the country, and even the most casual fans understand that they are seeing the sport's elite horses, stables, and jockeys. The brevity of the six-week season makes every day at Saratoga seem special - a contrast to the endless continuum of racing at most tracks. The track's location, alongside the grand, beautifully preserved old houses on Union Avenue, underscores the fact that the place is steeped in history, tradition, and class.

But perhaps the key element of Saratoga's boom is the simple fact that success breeds success. The American sporting public loves to be where a crowd is. Beautiful Belmont Park has no drawing power on days when a few thousand people are there, but everybody with a mild interest in racing wants to be amid 100,000 others for the Belmont Stakes. People love to be part of the bustling Saratoga scene, and the only ones put off by the crowds are those who remember how wonderful the place was in its tranquil past.

The Saratoga season was the central part of my gambling life for a quarter of a century, but by the 1990's I found that a day at the races here had become as much an ordeal as a joy. The 1994 season was abominable, plagued by rain scratches and small fields, and NYRA sometimes made fans wait 35 or 40 minutes between races. At the end of the season, I appeared on the in-house handicapping show and made this public declaration: "You won't see me here again for the rest of the millennium." I kept my word.

Returning here after eight years, however, some of my love for Saratoga has been rekindled. Since the '94 season prompted an overhaul of the track's management, Saratoga has offered consistently high-quality racing with fields of respectable size. The time between races is reasonable, and the track finally has begun to offer out-of-state simulcasts to entertain those of us who are not content playing nine races a day.

NYRA has coped as best as it can with the large crowds, turning almost every available inch of its grounds into a massive picnic area filled with television monitors and concession stands. "We've created an environment that's very fan-friendly," Schwartz said. "When you walk through the grandstand it's like being at a country fair."

A decade ago, I might have replied, snidely, that if I wanted a country-fair atmosphere I would go to a country fair, not a racetrack. But I am more tolerant of the carnival atmosphere here now. While Saratoga may be too hectic and crowded for comfort, racing fans have seen too much of the alternative. As attendance has dwindled at most American tracks, the atmosphere at them has become dispiriting. Belmont Park is a magnificent facility - superior in many ways to Saratoga - but with 5,000 people rattling around the cavernous grandstand on a weekday, it is spooky and depressing. A horseplayer can't help thinking that he's a relic playing a dying game. In Saratoga, where the track is packed every day and the whole community is preoccupied by racing, no such negative thoughts are possible.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post