It’s the oldest sporting venue in the country, dating back to 1863: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York. Held between late July and Labor Day weekend each year, they race registered thoroughbred horses six days a week (it goes dark on Tuesdays) and have 9-13 races each day.
My husband and I took our daughter when she was just six months old (as an add on to our visit to see the New York Giants training camp, when it was held at the University of Buffalo). We had a lot more fun this time, now that both of our children are old enough to sit and watch the races. (I had flashbacks to nursing my daughter on a bench while dozens of men around me screamed at a tv screen in the picnic area). We decided to go the first week the track was open this summer. We made some stops on our way to the track: Saratoga National Historic Park (read about our visit here) and National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame (read about our visit here). Here are some of our highlights from the race course:
The “Back Track” tram tour runs every fifteen minutes each morning 7:30am-9am. I had been warned to get there early, as it’s first-come, first-serve and the later timed trams fill up quickly. There is no fee for this 45 minute tour which brings you to the “Back Track” opposite the main concourse. This tour is very child friendly and there are lots of fun facts that will keep children entertained and giggling. The guide greets you where the tram drops you off and give you a tour of:
- Clear Court: a half mile track that is used to train the ponies before they prepare for the big races or for therapy for injured horses
- the graves of the four horses buried on the property
- the housing area for the 1,000+ workers who stay on site for the season
- the various barns where 2,000 horses are housed. Various owners pay to rent the stalls, and some will decorate the outside with hanging flowers. We saw chickens and goats in the barn area, which we were told are allowed to roam free because they are a calming influence for the boisterous thoroughbreds.
- the starting gate, run on electromagnets, which is portable (it moves around the course based on the length of each race)
- my children's favorite: the manure pit. Twice a week, trucks from Pennsylvania come to load to the manure and bring it back to Pennsylvania to fertilize mushrooms. My son’s still giggling about that fact.
The Walking Tour runs each hour, starting at 9:30am, on the half hour, until 2:30pm and has a nominal charge (it was $10 for our family of 6 to attend). Some of the info from the Back Track tour was duplicated, but there was also plenty of new information. On the walking tour we saw areas of the main club house, including:
- The winner’s circle
- The jockey scale (no way I was stepping on that; most jockeys weigh just over 100 pounds!)
- the pond in the center of the track, with a canoe painted in the colors of the winner of the Travers Stakes
- The ceremonious bell that is rung 17 minutes before the post of each race
- The Big Red Spring which has a fountain of mineral spring water- we were warned it has a peculiar taste, and sure enough, everyone in our group did not care for the taste of the water.
The track is open from 7am-10:45am each morning, and breakfast is served from 7-9:30am. Many people line up for the 7am opening to reserve a picnic table for the day. It’s common courtesy that if you place an item on a picnic table or set up a blanket or chairs, no one will remove those items and you’ve staked your claim to the spot for the day. We even saw people putting blankets on benches around the area. The Backyard picnic area has approximately 950 tables available to the public, free of charge.
There are also three areas you can pay for premium seating in the picnic area: the Festival Tent area, with 48 tables for rent; the Big Red Spring Tent, a party space for 50 people; and the Miller Lite picnic area, which has tables and chairs for rent. There’s also a Shake Shack and Dunkin' Donuts on site.
Around 10:45am, they ask everyone who has come for the morning to leave, and then reenter to pay the admissions fee if you’re coming to watch the races. After the walking tour, we had some free time, so we walked across the street to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. You can read about our highlights here.
General admission is $5 and you can pay an additional $3 to gain access to the Clubhouse where there is a variety of reserved seating options: grandstand seats, tables, and more formal restaurants. We chose to pay to have a table for the day at the Turf Terrace, which provides shade, a tv kiosk where we could place bets, table service (there was a per person minimum for food) and best of all, a prime view of the track.
There are plenty of spaces to move around and walk if little ones are getting antsy in their seats. There is even a playground located in the East Grandstand, near the box office. Young children will probably like the picnic area best as they will have more space to move and you can bring in small tables, blankets, coolers, food, and any reasonably sized toys (like legos, books, board games). There are televisions mounded under "umbrellas" at just about every angle throughout the picnic area so you won't miss a thing!