This summer has been full of long-weekends and trips all over the place. But last weekend may have been one of my favorites of Summer '16.
I grew up going to the Saratoga Race Track every summer from age 0 to around 18. I haven't been in over 6 years, but still have so many memories of the time spent there as a kid. My dad would always let me pick out a horse (based solely on their names, naturally) and when I won, I would buy my sister and friend Amanda Haagen-Dazs ice cream because I'm so generous like that.
Now, one of my best friends from high school lives nearby and we decided it would be a fun experience to go to opening weekend - as adults who could actually gamble and drink (though I still visited the children's tent and colored in my own jockey silks).
Saratoga is in the greater Albany area and it's not a long drive from NYC, CT, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, etc.
There are tons of buses to the area since there are so many college students nearby. I hopped on a Greyhound arrive on SUNY Albany's campus in 3 and a half hours!
WHERE TO STAY
I was staying with a friend who lives in Schenectady, but there are tons of cute towns surrounding Saratoga. You can stay super close to the racetrack in Saratoga Springs, or a little ways outside in towns like Latham, Niskayuna or Troy.
OFF TO THE RACES
The main event of the weekend was a day at the racetrack. Saratoga was the first organized horse-racing track in the United States and opened in 1863. Can you believe that? We were attending opening weekend, but what I love about Saratoga is that even when it's packed - there's plenty of parking, the lines aren't absurdly long, and all you need is a few feet of space to set up your chairs and cooler and you're ready to enjoy the day.
There are tons of parking options near the racetrack. Almost everyone who lives in the area opens up their driveways, yards and fields and charges $5-$10 per car. Just be prepared to walk a bit to get to the main entrance.
There are a few different options when attending the races, but to me, there's only one choice:
For $5 you gain entry into the track and can go sit anywhere in the grandstands (huge bleachers overlooking the track) or claim a picnic table along the perimeter of the complex. The picnic tables are usually shaded, have tons of TVs scattered around, are close to betting windows and bathrooms, and are a giant fun-filled picnic/day drinking extravaganza.
You can set up camp here - but you'll need to arrive to the track early in the morning (it opens at 7:00 a.m.) to reserve a table. Most people throw a tablecloth on top to claim their space.
But if you can't manage to snag a table, have no fear! Just bring some folding chairs and find a patch of grass - you're good to go!
Now that you have home base, you're free to wander over to the track or grandstands to watch any races you want to see in person throughout the day.
For a little more money ($8) you can gain entry into the Clubhouse - where there are multiple options for reserved restaurant seating. You'll have to meet a food/drink minimum, but you can reserve a space for the day.
FOURSTARDAVE SPORTS BAR
This is located in the lower Carousel and you can reserve two, four or six-person tables for $20-$90 depending on the day/number of people. You'll still need to pay the $5 entry into the racetrack.
WHAT TO PACK
Here's the most important piece of information to keep in mind when you're going to Saratoga: You can bring in your own food and drink.
YOU CAN BRING YOUR OWN FOOD & DRINK.
In today's world, this is reason to celebrate.
People pack coolers full of food and beverage and it's basically a big old tailgate (minus the grilling - grills aren't allowed inside the track).
The one rule: NO GLASS BOTTLES.
They'll confiscate any that they see in coolers on your way into the track. (We managed to get ours through, but we got lucky!)
Bring chairs, bring blankets, bring plastic utensils and plates and napkins. Bring cards. Bring koozies.
When I was younger, we brought coloring books and games.
If you have a wagon, they're great for transporting all your things from the parking lots to the picnic tables. Or rolling coolers if that's your jam (they must be smaller than 12" x 18").
Pack sunscreen - there is a lot of shade near the track but the sun moves throughout the day (duh) and you don't want to be drinking in the sun without any protection. That reminds me - pack plenty of water too!
Our menu last weekend included carrots, peppers, spinach dip, pre-made turkey sandwiches, mango, strawberries, watermelon, crackers, pickles, beers!
WHAT TO WEAR
At Saratoga, you'll see people in every type of clothing you can imagine. People dressed up to the nines and people in a cotton t-shirt and gym shorts. It's always fun to put on a dress and when else do you look completely normal wearing a big floppy hat? Lots of people still stick to the traditional dress/hat look when heading to the track.
The nicer areas of the track like the Clubhouse, Suites and Carouse require "neat casual attire" - no short shorts, tanks for men, jeans, etc. depending on the specific area you're sitting. There's a dress code online if you're venturing outside of the picnic table areas! (Oh you fancy, huh?)
HOW TO BET
I'm not a fan of gambling, but when it comes to the horse races, I can't resist betting on a horse with a name that I love. Stormin' Norman, Canadian Flyer and Hockey School were my picks this past weekend. And though I didn't win any money (goodbye, $21), I did get a refresher course on track lingo.
There are tons of computerized betting windows now - but they confused me and I opted to go talk to the real-life human being tellers. Here's what you tell them when it's your turn at the window:
1. Race Number
2. Amount of your wager
3. Type of wager (are you betting that your horse will win (come in 1st place), place (come in 2nd place) or show (come in 3rd place). Want to put money down on any of the above? "Across the board"
4. Program number (the number of the horse)
For example "Race 7, $2 to win on number 10."
I always go with "Race ---, $3 across the board on the number --- horse."
That means I'm betting $3 that the horse will win, $3 that it will place and $3 that it will show - it's a $9 bet total.
BIG RED SPRING
In the back area near the picnic tables is the Big Red Spring - a mineral spring enclosed in a gazebo. Take a walk over here at some point during your visit - they offer plastic cups for visitors to try a sip from the spring.
But beware: it's not a pleasant taste!
17 minutes before each race, the jockeys exit their quarters and head to the paddock. Children line up to get the jockey's autographs and when the race is over, their muddy goggles! It's fun to watch, and you'll also see the gorgeous horses being led to the paddock.
One of my favorite memories from the track was the little "Kids Tent" set up near the restrooms. There are coloring pages for kids young and old (aka: me) to design their own jockey silks (what their uniforms are called), to ride a little horse and sometimes, a clown teaching you how to juggle!
BREAKFAST AT THE TRACK
Another option to keep in mind is breakfast from 7:00 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. during the morning workouts. You can get into the track early, claim a picnic table, and enjoy a buffet breakfast in the clubhouse while watching the horses workout. Entry is free, but there's a fee for breakfast. I did this once when I was younger and it was a great experience!
There are TONS of bars that people flock to post-race. One of the most popular streets is Caroline Street.
In case you haven't had enough hours of drinking, some of the favorites are:
168 Lincoln Avenue
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
1 Gridley Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
THE POST AKA THE PADDOCK BAR
Near the Clubhouse Entrance at the track! There is live music and a DJ every Saturday after the races.
40-42 Lake Avenue
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
30 1/2 Caroline Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
16 Caroline Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Druthers is where we opted to go after our day at the track, though we headed back toward the Albany location to avoid the crowds (1053 Broadway).
Druthers brews their own beers, and though I wasn't head over heels with mine, it was a nice spot to get a drink and dinner,
There menu is extensive and has something for everyone. They're most well-known for their massive skillet-served mac and cheeses which was incredibly ooey-gooey.
I ordered the Barley Greens Salad which came with chickpeas, pearled barley, red onion, pistachio, smoked gouda and a Hefeweizen vinaigrette. It was light and tasty - leaving plenty of room to steal heaps of mac and cheese from my friends plate!
The next morning, we woke up and headed to Schenectady's Central Park to sweat out some of the alcohol that we had consumed the previous day at the track. We completed this workout - which is my go to for weekends when I'm not near my gym! You don't need any equipment, you don't need a gym, and you can do it outside in a park or on a lawn.
Though we were covered in dirt and twigs by the end - it felt good to get moving and helped to wake us up. Plus, I successfully did a pull-up on the playground which made me SO HAPPY considering it was once of my New Year's fitness resolutions and I haven't even been practicing! I was totally shocked and excited.
While Emma told us about a ton of cute towns around us, we ended up spending the day in Troy, which I highly recommend! It's a little city that's currently undergoing a bit of a transformation - cute stores, restaurants and antique shops abound thanks to the nearby Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
1801 5th Ave.
Troy, New York 12180
What is better than brunch specifically marketed as "Hangover Brunch?" Answer: A "Hangover Brunch" with a specialty Bloody Mary menu. And outdoor seating.
We headed to B-Rad's for their decadent, indulgent brunch. To be honest - the food at B-Rad's wasn't gourmet. But it was greasy and breakfasty and there were tons of options!
They have tons of different flavored pancakes (available Gluten Free!), stuffed French toasts ("Stuffies"), sandwiches and eggs Benedict in 4 different varieties (you can even order a sampler and try them all).
The pancakes my friends both ordered were delicious (the lemon ricotta ones were BURSTING with cheese) and the Green Eggs & Ham sandwich I had was just alright. It had way too much ham for my liking, but the eggs had a good pesto flavor.
I also ordered a side of French Toast because #carbs but it wasn't anything stellar.
The real star of this meal were the specialty Bloody Mary's. These brunch cocktails are a meal in themselves (or at least an appetizer).
The most insane one comes with an entire cheeseburger! I ordered the Buffalo Wing Bloody which had wing sauce in the drink mix with two amazingly delicious Buffalo Wings on a skewer in my glass!
I didn't love how gloopy the wing sauce was in my drink - but the wings themselves were delicious and the drinks were 100% Instagram worthy.
If there's a next time, I'll have to splurge on the $14 bagel & lox Bloody!
Troy, New York
When I spotted Troy's doughnut shop, I couldn't resist.
A little bit of research (thanks, Google) informed me that Nibble Inc. is a small-batch doughnut shop - which means when they're sold out of doughnuts for the day, that's it, they're closed. This is the way many doughnut shops work and though it's sad when you miss out, it means that they're using fresh ingredients and you're getting the real deal!
I dragged my friends inside, even though we were all bursting from brunch. Nibble Inc. was super cute inside and I was relieved to see that they weren't out of doughnuts.
We spoke with the woman working who told us about some of her favorites - and the fact that many of the glazes are completely vegan! Another fun fact? Nibble Inc. uses potato in all of it's doughnuts! (Except those that are gluten-free).
I surprised myself by going with a "lighter" option than usual and ordering a Basil Citrus glazed doughnut.
I was intrigued with the big bumps on top that made the doughnut look like a fritter.
The taste of the glaze was sweet and citrusy with a hint of basil - though I can't say that I would have guessed "Basil Citrus" if I had been doing a blind taste-test. The dough was incredibly dense - but not in a moist, cakey way (probably from the potato). At first I was a little undecided on whether or not I was a fan. Overall, I can't say it was one of my favorites.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
We walked around Troy to get a bit of a breather after brunch and came across some really interesting shops. There's a little bit of everything - antique stores, boutiques, bead stores, an African store, a culinary store - you name it.
But by far our favorite was:
13 River Street
This store was filled with beautiful hand made pieces - drift wood, old shutters, bricks and other recovered materials were used to create beautiful artwork that I would love to decorate my entire apartment with!
If you're ever in the area, it's definitely worth a visit!
GIRLS WEEKEND IN SARATOGA
And there you have it! I was amazed that as soon as I stepped food into the racetrack, I remembered where everything was. So many memories came flooding back and it was great to experience it with friends who I've known nearly as long as I've been going to Saratoga.
It really is such a relaxed, fun atmosphere - and it's such a cost effective way to spend the weekend! (Sans lost money betting on horses!)
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