Updated on 09/15/2011 12:46PM

Spa keeps fans coming back for more

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Saratoga Race Course

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - To find out why Saratoga Race Course is so alluring and so special to so many people, don't ask Bill Mott or Jerry Bailey. Instead, take a walk through the track's backyard at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning and talk to people like Paula and Howard Tokarz of Waterford, N.Y.

They'll tell you. Yet it's not just their words that can explain why the beloved Spa keeps setting attendance records. The mere fact that on a routine Sunday they, and hundreds of others like them, would be willing to camp out some four hours before post time says more about the intense fervor for Saratoga than any trainer or jockey ever could in a hour-long speech.

It wasn't Kentucky Derby Day or the Breeders' Cup. It wasn't the seventh game of a World Series or a Madonna concert.

It was simply the morning that the picturesque 138-year-old track would play host to the Go For Wand Stakes, yet to the Tokarzs the thought of spending nine or more hours at Saratoga was viewed as nothing but sheer bliss.

"It's a long day, but you don't mind spending that much time here. It's so scenic and historic," Howard Tokarz said. "When you come to Saratoga you can just get away from it all.

"I don't know of anywhere else where you can replicate the feeling of serenity you get here."

Serenity? On a day when 40,000 fellow patrons are on hand? Only a track with the timeless charm of Saratoga can pull off that trick.

Pat Lorion, another early arrival, vouched for Saratoga's unique ability to offer tranquility amidst all of the bustle. Churchill Downs on Derby Day? She's been there, done that. She'll take Saratoga.

"I was in the infield once for the Kentucky Derby," said Lorion, a resident of Fitchburg, Mass. "and it was pretty wild. Saratoga is better because it's family-oriented, like a picnic."

As Lorion spoke there were numerous people within ear-shot. She was hardly alone on a bright, sunny morning. Visit Saratoga at 10 a.m. on a weekend and you'll see more people and activity than you will at 3 p.m. on any November day at Aqueduct.

Those who know the drill are aware that if you want to enjoy Saratoga's weekend races from a picnic table in the backyard, you had better get there early. Veterans will tell you that if you can find an open table at 10 a.m., then you might as well forget about placing any bets. You just used up every ounce of your daily allotment of luck.

"It's no secret. If you want a good spot in the backyard on the weekends, you have get here early," Paula Tokarz said. Beyond the prized tables, the addition of a giant-sized viewing screen in the backyard has made the area in front of the large monitor as valuable to some as a front row seat for a Bruce Springsteen concert.

"I got here late on Saturday and all of the good spots in front of that big TV screen were gone, so I figured I'd play it safe (Sunday) and get here before 9," said John Hickey, who accompanied Lorion. "Look at all the people who are here now (at 9:15 a.m.). You have to get here early, but I don't mind because it gives me time to handicap and to walk around and see all of the things that are going on."

High quality racing is, of course, what brings people to Saratoga. But it is the total experience that keeps them coming back in record numbers.

For people like Lorion and Hickey and the Tokarzs, those leisurely early morning hours at the Spa can be as enjoyable as the more exciting afternoon hours when the horses race.

They can stroll over to booths selling everything from art work to straw hats. They can relax and take in the scenery. They can make new acquaintances.

"You can meet people from all parts of the world here, that's what makes it fun," Paula Tokarz said. "We'll bring our chairs, relax and have a great time waiting for the races to start."

Ideal weather conditions can magnify the charm of the carnival-like surroundings in the backyard, yet the Tokarzs say Saratoga's appeal is not reliant on bright sunshine.

Howard Tokarz, in reminiscing about some of his favorite moments at Saratoga, related a story about a weekend day when a monsoon struck. Instead of heading home, he and some friends simply closed ranks and huddled under a massive tree.

Rain was not about to spoil his day at Saratoga.

"That was a great day," Howard Tokarz said. "We laughed all day and had a great time."

A great day? He went home soaked, and lighter in the wallet, too. But he loved every minute of it. So much so that he'll happily endure a four-hour wait to see a day of horse racing and consider it a highlight of his summer.

That's Saratoga for you.