I can still remember so vividly, that warm August afternoon many years ago. While walking up Union Avenue, we heard the "call to post" for the day’s first race. My college buddy and I paid our two dollars at the gate and pushed through the crowd, towing our folding chairs and cooler along. We passed the red and white striped awnings and sprinted to the first betting window we could find - where I then picked two horses by only looking at the race numbers and the odds. Sure enough, what I later found out was called an ‘exacta box’ hit for $76! I was captivated from the start...
Saratoga became my summertime oasis. Sitting in that warm Upstate New York air, shaded by the oak trees, just being a part of all the sights and sounds in this horse racing mecca really made me forget everything else in the world for 12 races. There was something intangible about the community of horse racing fans for those six hours of racing that was carefree and welcoming. And of course, finishing the evening off by roaming Caroline Street and enjoying cocktails and banter on the patio at Gaffney’s, made Saratgoa one of my favorite places on Earth.
About nine years ago, when I landed a teaching job in Delaware, I wondered if my summer visits to Saratoga were going to become more few and far between. Sure, I was only 90 minutes away from Pimlico, but a new track in a new city just didn’t have the same ambitious appeal. During my second year in Delaware, a co-worker and new friend invited me to his birthday party the first weekend in October. He told me it was tradition to spend the day at Delaware Park but, I have to admit, I really didn’t know if I was ready to spend the day watching harness racing: to some, the minor leagues of the horse racing world. My colleague quickly corrected me, letting me know that Delaware Park had thoroughbred racing and even a few Grade One races sprinkled throughout the weekend. I agreed to go (with low exceptions) and waited to see what Delaware had to offer.
In the land known for its blue crabs and scrapple, I had very little hope that my day at Delaware Park would rekindle the feelings and memories I had of Saratoga As the car pulled off the highway, a beautiful golf course surrounded our road into the parking lot. The casino and racetrack seemed enormous as we entered through the main casino entrance. The casino itself was like many I’d been through before- walls lined with slot machines and table games throughout. I even noticed a table designated for $2 Black Jack, the casino’s Saturday special. After what seemed like 15 walk, our group arrived at the betting windows and Sports Book. The floor was filled with people making bets and watching the TV screens. There was even a small Irish bar tucked in the far corner, complete with an aged oak finish and various kinds of whisky and spirits.
The moment had finally come. Through the Sports Book, I saw the double doors that lead to the track and began to walk outside. My first impression of the race course was utter shock...It was beautiful. The course was clean and manicured, with a luscious green infield. The infield also had a fountain-filled pond and could have been mistaken for the sculpted scene of Del Mar (if a few oak trees were exchanged for palms, of course). The dirt was golden brown and the seats in the grandstands were about as close to the action as I had ever seen at a racing venue. This race course was clearly a hidden gem.
The older I get, the more I can really appreciate the small things that make a place special. Delaware Park pays attention to the details. Like Saratoga, after entering the Gallery, the horses are paraded through the crowd before every race, giving the spectators an opportunity to view each horse from only feet away. Also, adhering to the name, a large park surrounds the outside of the grandstand which is filled with picnic tables, vendors, food trucks and even a playground for children. But one thing that Delaware Park captures is the calm and carefree atmosphere that makes the fan’s experience an unexpected exception to the rule.
The truth is, Delaware Park doesn’t always have the biggest names, most prestigious jockeys, or exorbitant purses - but what the park lacks in stature, it makes up for in the experience. Autumn days at Delaware Park rival other tracks on the East Coast and gives horse racing fans a quaint insight into the world of thoroughbred racing. Since my move to Delaware, trips to Delaware Park have now become a part of my tradition.