« WSAU Opinion Blog


by Chris Conley

Today's blog comes from Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. I'll be back for Monday's WSAU Wisconsin Morning News.

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   If I were to take you to the horse races, one thought that would cross your mind is "where are all the people?" Most racetracks, on most race days, are almost empty. They were built at a time when you had to go there to place a bet... or do business with your neighborhood bookie.

But today you can bet the races with an internet account or a smartphone app. That, and, undeniably, the sport's popularity is declining. So the big, beautiful grandstand at Churchill Downs is full only on Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks day. Belmont Park, which seats 80,000, attracts an on-track crowd of 25,000. For people like me who actually want to see the horses run, you're reminded that you're in the minority.

But there are rare exceptions where high-quality racing and alluring venues still attract big crowds. Keeneland, in Lexington,Kentucky, offers three weeks of very high-level racing in April before Churchill opens - and the crowds come in great numbers. Many Kentuckians plan their vacations around Keenland's spring meet. Del Mar, two blocks away from the Pacific Ocean, races in July and August and is the highlight of California's see-and-be-seen racing scene. 

But there is nothing like Saratoga, which is the center of the horse racing world each August.

First, there is tradition here. They're been racing at Saratoga since Civil War-times. The place became even more popular in the early 1900s, when wealthy families would escape the filth and heat of a New York City summer to spend a few weeks at the hot springs resorts and enjoyed the races. Horsemen and owners loved the grand track in the pines north of Albany, and the small town itself had a living racing culture with restaurants and night clubs where the talk was about that days winnings and tomorrows entries.

Not much has changed today... which is part of Saratoga's charm. You're seeing a classic racetrack the way your grandfather would have seen it generations ago. It's still one of the few tracks were you park in a grass field in the back and walk through the stables to the front gate. You'll never get closer to the jockeys, owners, and actual horses than here. And for those who stay overnight, you'll find a downtown full of quaint shops, high-class dining, well-kept gardens, antiquing, and a performing arts center.

Owners dream of winning a race at Saratoga, and they know to send only their best horses. Picking winners here is tricky because this is one of the few tracks were horses from many different places compete against each other. You have to assess how a horse from Kentucky might match-up against a rival from Florida. And even trainers from lesser tracks are in-town to take their shot. Horses that show up from low-level tracks like Boston's Suffolk Downs or Penn National aren't here by accident.

My Monday trip to Saratoga with my daughter and grandmother was spectacular. There were still 40,000 people there - a big, enthusiastic crowd. And even for a weekday, the racing was high quality. I had three winners in 10-races, a break even day. I lost a photo finish that would have put me in the black for the day.

The photo is Edie, winning the day's last race on the turf, and sending me home with a smile. 

This is horse racing as it should be. High-class animals, big crowds, and a great venue. I hadn't been to Saratoga in four years. It's frozen in time. The less it changes, the better.

Chris Conley