What happens when you take thousands of horse racing fanatics, born and raised on the glory of Saratoga Race Course, deprive them of an entire year’s worth of track-going, and unleash them back into the Wild West that is the corner of Union and Nelson avenues? We’re not exactly sure—the last time this happened was just after World War II.
It’s those throngs of the faithful—the aforementioned hardest-of-the-hardcore Saratoga racing fans—that make a day at the Spa unlike one at any other racetrack in the world. That electricity you’ve felt building up since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the track could reopen at full capacity? That’s not 5G radiation. That’s the fans, emanating a two-year-long buildup of excitement that, come July 15, will explode, casting a 29-square-mile blanket of unadulterated bliss over the city for 40 days and 40 nights. Saratoga is back, baby, and let the people on the pages that follow tell you: This year is the year of the fan.
The Picnic Pros
It takes a special kind of person to get up at the crack of dawn and reserve a picnic table in Saratoga Race Course’s backyard area. Kirsten Lambert is one of those people.
“During the week, you can probably get in line at 6am and not be too far back,” she says. “Everybody’s been waiting in line, and the funniest thing is when everybody breaks through and does the run.” They’re running to stake a claim on a picnic table (or several) for that afternoon’s races. The unspoken rule is that if your stuff—tablecloth, cooler, lawn chairs—is on a table in the morning, it’s yours for the rest of the day.
This passion for picnicking (among other things) led Kirsten to move her family to Saratoga from New Jersey three years ago, and then open the Phila Street shop Tailgate and Party, which carries everything for the ultimate day at the races, including horse head hats and custom carts to hold all your supplies.
“The beauty of being back in the picnic area is that you can hang out there all day,” Lambert says. “What I like is having our whole family cornered in one little section. We just hang out and talk all day.”
The year was 1967, and 26-year-old Al Carter was at Opening Day of Saratoga Race Course. He returned for Opening Day the following year, and the year after that. In fact, he didn’t miss an Opening Day for 53 years—until the pandemic got in his way. The now 80-year-old also witnessed 52 out of the 53 Travers Stakes in that timespan (he left the track early on Travers Day 1979 because of bad weather), and even went to the races every day in a single season. “It was a year that, because they missed some days at Aqueduct, they made them up at Saratoga,” he says. “So they had 27 days straight without even a dark day. I went to every single one of them just to see if it could be done. And I never did it again.”
What exactly makes Opening Day so special for Carter? “A friend and I went down to Keeneland maybe 10 years ago,” he says. “I noticed there wasn’t electricity in the air like there was in Saratoga. We were sitting at a bar, and nobody was even talking about the races. When you go to Saratoga, Opening Day Eve is almost like Christmas Eve.”
The Homecoming King
Barry Potoker grew up just a few blocks from Saratoga Race Course and could hear the racing announcer from his backyard. “It’s a dreamy sort of thing to be that close, to leave your house and walk right over to the track,” he says. “It was a staple in my life growing up, as it is now.”
Ever since then, Potoker has gone to the track as much as possible, even making it there every single day in one season in the late 2010s. (His friends made him a “perfect attendance” certificate with the mayor’s signature on it.) “Every year on Opening Day, I walk to all my spots—all the nooks and crannies that I used to go to as a kid,” he says. “Then I land in my spot, which is the first floor of the Clubhouse. You get to see all these people that you see once a year during racing season. It’s like a homecoming.”
So, what did Potoker miss the most last season? “It may sound a little weird—but the sounds and smells of the track. The track has a smell. I love it. This year, I’m most excited to be inside what I call hallowed ground, just…smelling the roses, so to speak.”
The Saratoga Sweethearts
Brittany and Dan Furman met on Travers Day. They also got married on Travers Day. And when they decided to have a baby, it was during the Saratoga racing season that wasn’t—a.k.a. 2020. “I think that’s why we got pregnant,” Brittany says. “We were like, what else are we going to do?”
But going to the track isn’t just a summer tradition for the Furmans: It’s also a source of income. “Back in 2014, I had a big win,” Dan says. Then in 2015, he had an even bigger win. “I hit a straight pick five,” he says. “I bet $100. In that day I won $363,000.” Now, Dan and Brittany run the cheekily named Facebook page Just the Tip Saratoga (@justthetipsaratoga), where Dan posts his top Saratoga picks/tips. (In the past, track-goers had to subscribe to see Dan’s picks, but the couple is dialing their business back a bit because of the new baby.)
Despite all their financial success at the track, the simple splendor of a day at the races hasn’t been lost on them. “We’ve made so many friends,” Brittany says, “and it’s just so much fun.”
The Young and the Restless
When you’re a kid, you don’t really have much of a say where your parents drag you. And when your parents are racing fans in Saratoga, you’re pretty much guaranteed to spend a handful of late summer days at Saratoga Race Course.
That’s certainly true of Brody Santiago, who turns 10 on Opening Day. “I don’t really like seeing people race with horses,” he says. “Nothing really happens, and it’s mostly just grownups.” But there is one redeeming quality about the track for him: spending time with his friend Jovi, whose parents also bring her along with them to the track’s backyard area.
Brody’s 5-year-old brother, Gavin, on the other hand, though he was only 3 the last time he set foot on the track’s grounds, remembers the experience fondly. His favorite thing to do? “Watch horses.”
So the track might not be as much fun for a kid as, say, the Congress Park carousel or East Side Rec splash pad. But someone ought to tell these two towheads: spending time with friends while watching horses? That’s not a half-bad way to spend a day in Saratoga.