When a certain meme starts making the rounds of Saratoga’s hospitality workers’ group chats, the nightlife industry knows it’s time to get pumped for the seven-week party that is Saratoga’s track season. The top half of the image features a lovely photo of the track itself with the words “How you see it.” The bottom half? A still from the war epic 300, shot from behind a behemoth fighter, weapons raised for battle and staring into a chaotic and bloody sea of rampaging soldiers. “How we see it,” the meme deadpans. “We all know each other, so that gets sent around to everyone,” says Shane Foley, GM of Horseshoe Inn Bar & Grill. “That’s when we’re all like, ‘Here we go. See you on the flip side.’”
The Saratoga Race Course is expecting to again top one million visitors during this summer’s meet, which will double and sometimes triple how many people are in Saratoga on any given day. And as every Saratogian knows, this is a crowd that after a long day of wagering likes to hit the bars—hard. “Some are celebrating a win, or maybe they lost,” says Olivia Ventra, a bartender at The Bourbon Room. “Either way they’re going to drink.”
For those of us who have essentially aged out of the post-track nightlife season (or at least the most hardcore version of it), the venues with their bulked-up teams of waitstaff form a sort of unique ecosystem with a lot of strangely complementary moving parts. After a day at the races finishes, the after-partying commences at Siro’s and the Horseshoe, with the former’s neighborhood exacting the strictest noise ordinance. When Siro’s closes so its neighbors can rest, everyone migrates to the Shoe, which then has to close at 11 for the sake of its own neighbors. That’s when the masses—including many of the bar’s workers—head downtown, where some bartenders go in as late as 8:30pm and all work well into the early morning. (Just a few hours later, the Horseshoe opens for breakfast and enjoys its first rush of the day as people headed to the track’s backyard stop in to load up on food.)
For patrons, that’s a lot of hours of drinking, especially for the ones who started at the track in the afternoon (or for some, even in the morning). But party on they do—and COVID didn’t help that. “People’s tolerances got higher because they were making stronger cocktails at home,” says one Caroline Street bar owner. “This summer’s going to be a crazy one.”
“It’s not too terrible until 1:30 or 2am,” says Alyssa Murphy, a bartender at Soundbar. “That’s when you can start to point out the people who have been out all day. It isn’t really too bad though. We have two head bouncers at the door to stop problems before anyone gets inside. They make sure us girls are safe.”
The Bourbon Room, which opens relatively early at 5pm, draws a uniquely higher-end crowd, given how closely bourbon and horse racing go hand in hand. It’s not unheard of for someone to call ahead to make sure a certain bottle is stocked in preparation for the liquor company’s owner to stop in. “A lot of people love to talk about bourbon,” says Ventra’s friend and coworker Rachel Duff. “I learn a lot, which makes it fun. Working here, you meet people from all over the world.”
Those connections can be stronger than one might think. So many people have such fond memories from fun nights out in Saratoga that they book their next trip solely because they met a great bartender who helped them have a spectacular night. On the other hand, especially as downtown suffers from street fights that sour Caroline Street in the news, one venue’s having a bad night can affect the whole town.
Downstairs at Soundbar, Murphy calls track season her Super Bowl (“we prep all year”), and tries to prepare the newbies: “This spring, one new person thought we were so busy, and all I could say was, ‘If you think this is bad, just you wait.’” But at the Horseshoe, where a whopping 17 bartenders serve thousands (up to 2,000 at a time with renovations making room for even more this year), it really does conjure up a meme-worthy battle. There’s one bar that serves only cans, and you might hear “cash only!’ if the crowds get too dense. “When the people line up at the bar, I call it a typewriter,” says owner Charlie Hoertkorn. “’What do you want? What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?’ Then you go click, click, click back to the beginning.” (Murphy says the crowd gets so thick at Soundbar that dancing her way through it with her bottle service tray is the only option.)
Over the years (this summer will be his sixth) Hoertkorn and his team have become a well-oiled machine that’s ready for anything.
“The bar opens at 5:30, and by 6:30 it’s like someone flipped a switch,” Hoertkorn says. “But sometimes a storm or the heat will cancel the rest of the card. We’ll be getting ready and look up to see 200 people headed our way at 4 or 4:30. You buckle down, get the barbacks in motion, and as people show up for their shifts, you get them out there.” And when Mother Nature steps in, anything goes. “In a big downpour, people huddle in the tents,” he says. “Some people always end up dancing in the rain, jumping in puddles.” Adds Foley, “One time my shoes were so muddy I just left them and walked downtown barefoot.”
If all of this chaos has you wondering why anyone would put themselves through it, they not only do so, but they’ll also do anything to avoid taking even one night off. “Money does motivate!” says Ventra, while Murphy says the older couples that hit Soundbar during track season are the biggest tippers aside from larger parties celebrating a special occasion. At the Horseshoe, Hoertkorn and Foley have a strong team of summer servers who are track season veterans, many rolling in the dough while on summer vacation from their teaching jobs. “Money-making season is all about your mentality going into it,” Duff says. “This is the priority. You don’t want to take time off all season, so clear your head now.” Adds Ventra, “You can’t let the stress show or let them see that you’re tired. Always stay positive because it’s going to be a good night.”