Saratoga Raceway–Horse Racing is the “More.”

Marion E. Altieri, New York Writer

I’m having one of those moments again, when I want to slap myself for alternately hating something–and loving aspects of it.  

There’s a property straddled between Nelson Avenue and Jefferson Street in Saratoga–right across Nelson from the gorgeous Greentree farm (Darley) that belongs to my hero, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  The aforementioned property therefore is almost across Nelson from the ancient, mystical and magnificent Saratoga Race Course.

What is the property of which I speak?  Why, you know it–and if you’re a local to upstate New York,  and/or a fan of harness racing–you know it as Saratoga Raceway.  You know:  the place in Saratoga where Standardbreds are raced using sulkies, their jockeys called instead, drivers.  Jupiter, the Saratoga police-horse, is a Standardbred whom, I believe, is retired from harness racing.  A noble and lovely breed, Standardbreds have the high standard of the Hanover pedigree to thank for many of their Champions, and Hanover Shoe Farm to thank for raising the bar for ethics regarding over-breeding.  If only other breeds of horse were as conscientiously-controlled as that of Standardbreds.

I love many things about the place that I shall always call, Saratoga Raceway:  I love the horses, first-and-foremost.

I love Fortune’s, the fabulosa restaurant in the Clubhouse–I love it that seating there is theatre-tiered, so I can watch the races as I dine.  Their seafood buffet is second-t0-none.

Yes, Saratoga Raceway has a fine and talented Executive Chef, and his carefully-chosen staff.  They create some amazing meals for Fortune’s and other endeavors on the property.

I also love–very much!–the people who walk around at Fortune’s with tiny computers–take my bets–and hand my ticket to me–again, as I sit and dine.  How darned convenient is that?  I don’t even have to leave my chair, or miss the action on the track, in order to lose yet-more money.  Sweet.

I really like the simulcasting area at Saratoga Raceway, and the many TVs there–friendly tellers at the windows–and the fact that there’s plenty of room to convene with friends.

There are many things about Saratoga Raceway that are the same, and have been the same, since I was a child and first ventured up here with my Mother and Grandmother.  Like many horse race fans in August, we’d often go to Saratoga Race Course during the day to watch the Thoroughbreds race–and just cross the street at the end of the day to watch the Standardbreds.  We could not get enough of horses, and the neighboring tracks on Nelson were just the…ticket…if  you will, to satisfy that craving.

Now that I’ve told you what I love about Saratoga Raceway, and loved in the past, I’ll tell you what I hate:  I hate it that the role that horses play, and have played, in the building of the place, has all-but been erased by some young marketing wonk who’s advising the owners.

And who are the owners?  Saratoga Casino Holdings, LLC, is the principle owner–but get this–a 25% stake in the whole shebang was signed and sealed on October 2, 2015 by none other than (wait for it)–Churchill Downs, Inc. (I’ve Googled relentlessly, and can’t find anything more recent than that–so I have to assume that the 25% sale went through.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

CDI paid $24.8 million for the privilege of 25% ownership in Saratoga Raceway–oh, yes, and the property, including the casino.  (Known more familiarly as, “racino.”)  A couple of years ago when it became known that the marriage of these entities could result also in a casino in East Greenbush, New York–New Yorkers started to become curious, as to why Churchill Downs, Inc., was so interested in setting up shop here, too.

After all, NYRA hasn’t put in a bid to buy Keeneland, or any other Kentucky race track.  So why does CDI want property in The Empire State?


Money, of course. Money is green, whether you’re in the Bluegrass or driving up the Northway.  CDI smelled cash in that raceway and casino, and frankly–as a die-hard New Yorker and fan of NYRA–I wondered if NYRA felt the noose tightening around their necks.

Would CDI close in–will they?–and try to take over New York Thoroughbred racing, as well?  (For the record, CDI now also owns 50% management ownership in the Gideon Putnam Resort in the Spa State Park, also.  And I haven’t heard about NYRA buying 25% or 50% or any % of any Kentucky-based racetracks or hotel properties.)

Yes, were I NYRA–seeing CDI moved in right across the street–I’d sleep with one eye open.  this is not a new neighbor for whom you bake a cake and go over for a visit.  This, to me, feels like an invasion.

The biggest problem I have with this situation is not the new hotel–which, from what I see on the outside, nicely conforms to Saratoga’s Victorian charm.  And certainly, I would not turn down a stay there, were they to comp me a room for a night or two.  And a big, fat steak at Morton’s.  (I mean, who isn’t excited about Morton’s the Steakhouse being in Saratoga?)  A friend who’s a genuine conoisseur reports that it’s spectacular, and no one could buy a good review from her, she’s a straight arrow.

No, The Big Problem that I have, I have because I’m a wordsmith.  I write, and–as all writers know–I know that Words Determine Destiny.   Words, my dears, have the power to start wars and to begin them.  To melt a heart, to harden the same heart like steel.

Words are power.

So when the name of the property across Nelson from HH Sheikh Mohammed’s place was renamed, Saratoga Hotel * Casino–they consciously and subconsciously were kicking horses right out of the picture.  First, it was, Saratoga Raceway–and has been that since 1941.

Oh, sure, they’re still hosting harness racing.  They’ll be there all summer, and I highly recommend that you visit the Raceway when you’re in town for the Thoroughbred races.  Like Mommy, Gram and me–just walk across Nelson,  have some dinner and watch racing all night long.

But it makes me nervous–and angry–that, with the completion of the hotel on the property–the owners’ focus, which hadn’t been all-that racing-oriented for about a decade, anyway–but the hotel sealed that deal.  It was as if some persnickety control freak had rigidly ordered the owners,

“You can use the names of only TWO of the things you do there in the new branding.  Pick two.  Just two.  ‘Hotel.’ ‘Casino.’  That’s two.”

…and the new entity, this mega-company, went lock, stock and barrel for yet-another marketing fool’s foolish demand that the past be swept under the rug.  The fact that something is new and glamorous doesn’t make that thing GOOD.  And the fact that harness racing–and beautiful horses–have been on this piece of land for 75 years–isn’t a Bad Thing.  If anything, the energy of horses–of the hard-working men and women who love and work in the sport of harness racing 24/7/365–came together for many decades, to create a great show, in a lovely sport.

But now, unless you know that there’s racing there–you wouldn’t know.

Oh, sure, their website has a page dedicated to the timeline of harness racing in that place.  And the timeline looks nice, and respectful.  And they do have an entire racing section of the ‘site, including race dates.

But the name.  The damned name.  The place no longer is, Saratoga Raceway.  It’s not even, Saratoga Raceway and Casino–or even, Saratoga Casino and Raceway, as it was for a few years.

Now it’s Saratoga Hotel * Casino.

The homepage promises, “…the best in dining, gaming, entertainment and more.”

Horse racing is the “more.”  You know, like on sports networks, where Horse Racing falls under, “Other Sports,” like hot-dog eating contests.  “More.”

Which, of course, is code for “Less.”

I want to eat at Morton’s.  I want to stay in the hotel.  But at night, I want to be at the rail, watching beautiful Standardbreds racing with their sulkies and drivers in tow under the lights.

I fear that, first the racing is omitted from the name of the place.  And that the next step is that the horses and all their connections are told that there’s no room for them anymore.

That would be a sad day, if the language chosen by some 20-year-old marketing major influenced one of the most renowned  horse racing companies in the world (CDI) and its new partner to nuke the horse racing, altogether. Because some kid named Bobby who just graduated from Syracuse thinks that horse racing isn’t “sexy” enough.

I mourn the exclusion of the word, “Raceway” from the title of an historic property on Nelson and Jefferson, for I know that language is destiny.  I hope that I never have to mourn the utter abandonment of the place’s original mission:  that of presenting world-class harness racing in Saratoga Springs, New York, and watched by harness fans the world-over.




CDI Partnership with Saratoga Casino Holdings, LLC:

A lovely piece of history, from 1941:

Racing Timeline, from