I’ve always had a romantic notion of horse racing from watching old movies from the 1940s. Even though I grew up around (decidedly unclassy and depressing) OTB storefronts, the image that stuck with me was of a lady holding binoculars in her gloved hands, face hidden under a wide-brimmed hat, watching majestic horses run past. With this vision in mind, I went to my first horse race—the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs (the oldest major thoroughbred horse race in the U.S.)—and it pretty much lived up to the vision. Wearing a prim hat and dress, sitting in the posh grandstands, I experienced a lady’s day at the track…which seemed to have the same foundation as anybody’s day at the track—get drunk and gamble. It was fun!
Personally, I never gamble, but I made a point to bet on every race that I was there for. Having missed the first few, I bet on eight races—this is truly an all-day affair. My friend had given me a tutorial on our way up to Saratoga so I was prepared with the basics, and he bought the racing form so we could make “educated” wagers. I also knew not to gamble more than I was willing to lose. What I did not know was that horse races are cash-only (which makes sense when you think about it—gambling is highly addictive and credit would allow a gambler to lose much more money than he otherwise could). So, I started with $27—and since I ended with only $8, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t have more!
But it’s a ride; I wasn’t losing the whole time. In fact, I won my first bet and gained $18! That was a good feeling. I broke even on the second bet and won a few more bucks with my third. (As you may have gathered, I was not placing high wagers.) Then I started breaking even/losing—an unfortunate result of making riskier bets and afternoon cocktails kicking in. I didn’t care, though; the experience was fun.
I alluded to the classism apparent earlier. Let me expand on this point. When we arrived, we were told that the entrance for our tickets was a different one, about 20 yards to our left. Upon entering, though, we realized that both entrances fed into the same, undivided area—there hadn't even been a difference in wait-time between the two lines. I gathered we simply weren’t meant to enter where box seat ticket holders did.
The interior looked like a carnival, with stalls selling beers and various fair foods and people hanging out in lawn chairs, seemingly tailgating. It wasn’t until I saw a little more of the area that I realized that those people weren’t tailgating, but rather they didn’t have seats. Their tickets allowed them into the park only, hence they brought lawn chairs. Apparently there is a higher-level of lawn chair tickets seated underneath the grandstands, in a penned-in (well, painted-outlined) area underneath a TV screen.
As far as I could tell, everything else was common. One could purchase refreshments and place bets, or use the rest room, in any area.
Besides the fun I had pretending to time-travel, I will note that I was impressed by the majestic horses. Their coats shone over their powerful muscles as they seemed to effortlessly glide around the track; that sounds cheesy, but it was truly more beautiful than can be put into words. That sight is what really brought me the feeling from the classic films. That, and my lady hat.