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Bet on Breakfast

It’s OK to wear your tux to breakfast at the Saratoga Race Course—the classiest hangover cure of the summer track season

by B.A. Nilsson on July 26, 2012

Trace anything to do with the Saratoga Race Course back to its source and you’ll always bump up against money. Lots of it. So it was that, as thoroughbred racing took hold in this city (“a race where they set down right on the horse!”), the wealthy owners would spend the night gambling at Canfield’s Casino, then stop by the track in the wee hours as the trainers began to exercise the horses.

“The owners would arrive in their carriages,” says trackside announcer Mary Ryan, “and then would send their drivers to get coffee and croissants. That’s where the tradition of breakfast began.”

Ryan has been giving breakfast-hours commentary since 1976 and has absorbed a complete history of racing and horses—not surprising, as she herself was the first female steeplechase rider to compete professionally in this country. She sits in the Clubhouse, where a panoramic view of the track allows her to describe each of the horses being breezed.

And you’ll hear her in the trackside seats below once the new audio crew gets the speakers there connected. Which is good, because she helps remind us that those beasts going by are more than momentary entertainment.

Breakfast is available trackside from 7 to 9:30 each racing morning. Horses are worked until 8:30, after which the track is groomed. So it’s a good idea to get there early, which also ups your chance of snagging a sunny table near the rails.

The meal itself is a buffet ($17). You’ll be coffeed and juiced and wristbanded before getting turned loose on the food, distributed among three stations. Center are the cold items, the arrays of fruit (lots of melon and berries), individual servings of yogurt and breadstuffs including bagels, muffins and, of course, croissants.

Traditional hot breakfast items never taste as good as when they’re fresh off the stove, so a buffet of eggs and sausage and potatoes and such quickly loses its vivacity. But you’re here for a taste of rich folks’ lives, n’est-ce pas?, so bear in mind that your traditional baronial morning meal was laid out in salvers on a sideboard, and the greater your hangover, the colder your meal.

In that context, you’ll fare well here. The creamy scrambled eggs may seem a little chunky and stiff, but they pair well with the roasted potatoes. Besides, if there’s anything like the chorizo and tomato-filled frittata I sampled available, you’ll do much better with that and its helpful complement of cheese.

There’s bacon, around which I wrapped croissant halves to tasty effect, and decent sausage links. Buttermilk pancakes are excellent. Oatmeal is oatmeal. The coffee keeps arriving.

And when you get right down to it, the meal itself contributes only a fraction of the trackside-dining experience. The beauty of the track complex, with its concentric rings and hedge-sculpted center, is compelling. The thoroughbreds are gorgeous. And there’s the spectators show going on around you.

“Back in the casino days, you’d see people here in the morning still wearing their tuxedos and gowns,” says Ryan. “And still, you can’t be overdressed here.” As the meet progresses, she notes, downtown stores will be sending models to show off the available fashions, adding to the show.

“The setting is perfect,” says Seth Benzel, a trainer and area native who’s been associated with the track for more than a decade, on his own for the last four years. “Saratoga is the best place in the world to learn about horses, and the morning preparations, with the commentary and in this setting, can be the best time to start. What happens with the horses between the time they arrive at the track and the time they go to post can be just as interesting as the races themselves.”

Over the course of its nearly 150-year-old history, Saratoga’s track has developed a compound identity that lets you enjoy the racing—and the greater context of the place—on a few different levels. Grab a table on the picnic grounds and you can follow the races on outdoor monitors (and venture trackside from time to time) while carrying on a party of your own. Bring a cooler; pay handsome fees for vendors’ wares.

Other dining options depend on where you sit once the day’s racing begins. The Clubhouse sports the most desirable seating, as well as the Turf Terrace dining room on its third and fourth floors, with an a la carte menu and a 25-buck minimum.

The Carousel, on the Clubhouse’s second floor, offers a $50 buffet and a lighter-fare option for $29. More casual is the neighboring Club Terrace (a la carte, $15 minimum) and much more fancy is the At the Rail Pavilion, in the air-conditioned building at first turn, where the fancy buffet runs $80 ($85 on Saturdays).

If you like where you’re sitting at breakfast, the food options continue throughout the day—but you’ll be cleared out of the area at 10 AM and will have to compete for your table all over again.

Local restaurants also maintain a presence at the track, with Siro’s, Hattie’s, the Putnam Street Market, the Old Daley Inn, Shirley’s and Bettie’s Cakes offering their wares.

Among the daily visitors during racing season are sports figures, movies stars, people with wealth and people looking for that sudden payoff. It’s a crazy, crowded festival as post time nears, but for a leisurely look at what’s most elegant about trackside culture and society, breakfast remains your best bet.