SARATOGA SPRINGS — The earlier opening of Saratoga Race Course’s thoroughbred meet had its pluses and minuses.
Literally the biggest addition was the 1863 Club, a three-level, climate-controlled building that spectacularly replaced the former At the Rail pavilion and temporary hospitality suites at the clubhouse turn to the tune of $30 million. It lacks for nothing.
With comfortable seating, automatic betting machines, food and bars at the ready, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the track and even porches, those willing to spend some money should be treated to a top-level experience.
During a media tour of the facility on Tuesday, primary architectural consultant Matthew Hurff of Frost Hurff Architects said he had to balance Saratoga’s history with the amenities.
“Building at Saratoga Race Course requires something more,” Hurff said. “It required the slow thing, the hard thing, the expensive thing because they knew it was the right thing to do.”
The opening day, eight days earlier than normal under the new schedule this year in which racing will be held five days a week instead of six, lacked its usual crowd. The paid attendance on Thursday was 22,591, down more than 11,000 from 2018. The on-track handle was $3,087,839 (down from last year’s $5,403,833), but this year’s card was hampered by rain during the second half of the day.
There were unclaimed picnic tables in the backyard, which few could ever remember happening on opening day. It didn’t affect Bill Loske of Canajoharie and a group of several friends under a tent near the parking lot.
“Not us, but I think it has some people, it looks like,” said Loske, who said the group comes to the track about four to five times a year.
Ilion’s Jim and Lindsay White came with three other family members for what they figured was at least their 10th straight opening day, but they said the earlier opening felt strange.
“A little bit, and it feels less crowded,” Jim White said. “Usually opening day is so crowded.”
Security staff and other new workers were still getting instructions 15 minutes before the 11 a.m. reopening of the gates
The New York Racing Association’s on-track handicapping show, “Talking Horses” had its start delayed by 10 minutes apparently because of a glitch.
Though it may have been smaller in number, the crowd still was vocal when asked to yell out its traditional “And they’re off at Saratoga” as the horses left the gate in front of the grandstand for the day’s first race.
“All right everybody, they’re going into the gate for the first race at Saratoga, which means we’ve got work to do,” track announcer Larry Collmus said, and the crowd didn’t disappoint.
Armament won the opener by 6 1/4 lengths under Irad Ortiz Jr. He paid $11.40 to win.
Friday’s highlight is a tribute to former New York Yankees reliever and Hall of Fame electee Mariano Rivera after the third race.