When organizers held their first meeting at the Holiday Inn seeking volunteers for the 150th commemoration of Saratoga Race Course, 80 people showed up.
That was three years before the anniversary.
Ed Lewi, public relations chairman of the Saratoga 150 committee, knew at that moment 2013 was going to be something special.
“We said, wow, let's do this.”
Since then, virtually every business in Saratoga Springs, NY, every local group, every neighbor has pitched in something to bring Saratoga 150 together.
Lewi, a longtime PR specialist with his wife, Maureen, said it's a massive undertaking, spanning five months and featuring more than 200 individual events.
“We've done a lot of events, including the Olympics, but this thing is unbelievable. This community, when they decide to do something, they do it.”
Lewi and his wife were among a group of Founding Members who each contributed $25,000 to kick off funding for the Saratoga 150 extravaganza. Others included Marylou Whitney, the “grande dame” of Saratoga, and her husband, John Hendrickson – both renowned philanthropists. It was Hendrickson's idea to develop a countdown of the best races in Saratoga's history, which will be shown on the infield screen throughout this year's meet (July 19-Sept. 2). Whitney and Hendrickson also put up $75,000 for a promotion on five consecutive Saturdays that will award one lucky fan the chance to place a $15,000 win bet on the featured race of the day.
But the Saratoga 150 events are already underway and begin in earnest this Saturday with the “Family Night at the Spa” at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The evening will feature music and other entertainment, fireworks, a $1,000 picnic contest, costumes from the 1860's, games for children, and The Music Studio Kids leading the crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday Saratoga Racing.”
Lewi said Family Night brings together two of the themes for Saratoga 150 – to get all ages involved, including the next generation of racing fans, and to celebrate the races, which began at Saratoga during the Civil War on Aug. 3, 1863.
“Something for everyone, that's been our push all along,” said Lewi. “And to try and help racing.”
At Family Night, the “Saratoga 150 Starting Gate” will also be unveiled. It's a four-stall gate that's been redesigned as a display attraction. It will make the rounds across New York state in parades and county fairs to drum up awareness of the celebration.
Other upcoming events: A Saratoga 150 film festival, featuring the movies Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Saratoga; an arts festival celebrating a century and a half of art in Saratoga; and a series of military encampments honoring those who've served in wars spanning generations of Americans.
Sports writer Red Smith famously said about getting to Saratoga: “From New York City drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue, then go back 100 years in time.”
That's exactly what the town will do Aug. 2 with the Floral Fete and Ice Cream Social, a Victorian-style celebration prompted by Marylou Whitney. The parade, reminiscent of a popular event in the late 1800's/early 1900's, will feature horse-drawn carriages and other wagons decorated in fresh flowers and greenery. Saratoga residents can participate in the parade by flowering out their own bicycles, baby carriages, and other “non-motorized contraptions on wheels.”
“Everything has to be decorated with flowers,” said Whitney. “It's going to be the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Also in early August, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform a “150th Anniversary of the Race Course” concert, featuring equine-themed pieces across the centuries and the world premiere of a new commission called Serenade written specifically for the Saratoga 150 anniversary. Later in the month, there's a “$2 Bettor's Ball,” where admission and food are inexpensive, and the ballrooms will feature dance bands playing the music of seven generations.
There are too many events to list here, but they all add up to a celebration rising to the rare occasion of 150 years. Put another way: That venerable baseball stadium in Boston just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Saratoga was nearly 50 years old when Fenway Park opened!
Those who've spent time in Saratoga know the sense of history is palpable as you wander through the streets of town and make your way to the track. Memories – your own and those of countless families and many generations – seem to brush past on the gentle breeze as you stare up at that old grandstand.
Saratoga 150 is collecting some of those stories online, a written reminder of what bonds us to racing and why Saratoga has endured as America's oldest sporting venue.
Among the many stories that exemplify why Saratoga is so special comes from Gary Styczynski, who recalls sneaking off to the races with his father, the smell of “white owl cigars,” and his dad teaching him how to read the form. In 2007, Styczynski won an event at the 2007 World Series of Poker and bought a house within walking distance to the race course.
He writes: “As I walked down the street toward the track, all of those memories came right back to me. I now smoke an occasional cigar and teach my own son how to read a form. Great bonding moments in life that the Saratoga Race Track has created for my family. I will continue to pass on these memories to my children and future grandchildren.”
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