By SUZANNA K. LOURIE
SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was the hottest July 22 in more than 10 years for Saratoga Springs, but blistering temperatures couldn’t stop the 25,155 fans who showed up, water bottles in hand, ready to celebrate the kickoff of Saratoga Race Course’s 143rd annual racing season.
The high temperatures were a stark contrast to last year’s opening day when a crowd of 23,178 came out despite torrential downpours; this year’s opening day attendance represented an 8.5 percent increase over last year.
For the next six weeks, the racing industry will be focused on Saratoga, America’s most historic track, where plenty of new features abound,from the entrance of Dunkin’ Donuts and the exit of Carvel to the touted low price of beer at $3 for a 12 oz. domestic draft. Fans were up early in the Clubhouse for the 7 a.m. breakfast at the track, where they dined on scrambled eggs, pastries and sipped a morning mimosa during the horses’ early workouts.
Close friends Marie Vredenvurg of Mechanicville, Teresa Califano and Ann Palin, both from Clifton Park, come to breakfast at the track on opening day every year.
“We like to see the horses work out,” Califano said. “We also just love Saratoga and it’s not just during race season,” Palin added. “I love Saratoga all year long — I enjoy coming up here, just walking the main street through the little shops — you find things you don’t find any other place. Saratoga is just unique and we’re fortunate to be a part of it.”
Other dedicated fans lined up even earlier than 7 a.m. outside of the main gate to ensure they would get a shady picnic table in the backyard.
“We line up every year at 6:30 in the morning to get this same spot,” said longtime racing fan Randy Johnson, who also teaches biology at Saratoga Springs High School.
Johnson, a Saratoga Springs resident, reunites with friends he only sees during racing season each year at the very same picnic table.
“Randy runs every morning with his packed backpack, table clothes and chairs to get this spot,” said Johnson’s friend Cynthia Hutchinson of Montreal. “He calls it running with the bulls.”
Johnson is no backyard rookie either, for more than a decade he’s come back to the same spot to meet friend Bob Guay, of Montreal.
“We met right here 15 years ago and now this guy is my best friend — we go to his house and he comes down here,” Johnson said of Guay.
For Johnson and his crew, the best prescription for beating the heat was kicking back with a cold beer, plenty of water and, of course, laughing with old friends.
“We sit in the same area every year and you really start to know people,” said Guay’s wife Joy Brock. “People say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It’s really wonderful.”
A “who’s who” list of Capital Region business leaders gathered at the Carousel Restaurant, where socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, hosted their annual Opening Day luncheon.
Outside in the picnic areas, track goers were in high spirits despite temperatures soaring into the mid-90s.
“It’s Christmas in July!” yelled one happy fan while setting up his tent.
Strolling past the bars, there was a buzz about the new low prices of beer.
“Dude, it’s only $3!” called out another anonymous crowd member from one bar.
For some, the cure for the sizzling heat was knocking back a cold one and for others, it was savoring a bowl of ice-cold Ben and Jerry’s. Moshik Teichholtz of Israel came to Saratoga for the first time with son Guy Teichholtz and brother Udi Vax. Having only been in Saratoga for three-hours, the trio was already enjoying the atmosphere of the track.
“I like the atmosphere, it’s not like Israel — except it’s hot, the weather is just like Israel,” said Teichholtz.
Closer to the track, fans outside the paddock lined up to watch the horses warm up before the second race of the day.
“The horses are why we come here; they’re the stars,” one observer said.
Racing fans did a lot of wagering Friday: on-track handle was $3,551,745, up 13.4 percent from 2010; total handle including wagers made on-track and from nationwide simulcast outlets was $15,871,449, up 18.9 percent.
Other fans were content to post up with elaborate picnic set ups in front of the outdoor TV screens to watch the races and do their betting from the comfort of their claimed space.
“We only go to the rail if it’s not blistering hot,” Hutchinson said. “We mostly spend the day right here in the shade and it’s great.”
Despite the high humidity, well-coiffed women in the Clubhouse managed to stay glamorous with elaborate hats and headpieces, high heels and frequent make-up touch-ups.
“I love the excitement and the challenge of picking the right horse… which I often do by name,” laughed 10-year track attendee Wendy Burke, of Boston.
It’s not just racing fans who are feeling good about the 2011 Saratoga meet, the New York Racing Association heads into the 2011 meet in much better financial condition than a year ago, when it was faced with the possibility of a racing shutdown before getting the first installment of a $25 million loan. The loan, first provided by the state, has since been taken over by Genting New York LLC, the firm chosen to run Aqueduct Race Track’s new casino that’s scheduled to open this fall.
Adding to the sense of optimism, Saratoga Race Course is expected to undergo $100 million worth of capital improvements in the next few years as new gaming revenue becomes available.
Overall, searing temperatures couldn’t slight the opening day excitement felt around the track about the official kick off of what is sure to be another exciting 40-day meet.
“I think Saratoga is the best track in the country because of the ambiance,” said Mary Ann Monaco of Albany. “At Belmont, it’s just the racetrack — here, it’s the picnic areas, the trees and just look at the track! It just inspires you to come here. Saratoga is the place to be, just like they say.”