A crowd that will be announced to have numbered 40,974 begins to filter through the admission gates on a sun-kissed Sunday morning. Post time is almost two hours away but already the outbound traffic, a stream of people laden with armfuls of black caps, is on its way toward the parking lots and the streets that surround the old racetrack in Saratoga.
Among the Spa’s many charms: Mineral springs, streets lined with graceful Victorian mansions, Hattie’s Chicken Shack, Broadway, a history rich and colorful, Shoeshine Chico, a vibrant arts community, free stuff on Sundays at the racetrack.
While horseplayers gathered on Sunday to complain that four of the first five races on the card were unplayable and that the game has decayed to the point at which only two pounds separated the high weight and the lightweights in the Grade 1 Ruffian Invitational Handicap, the field for which included not a single Grade 1 winner, and that Sidney’s Candy, who was 4-5 on the morning line while burdened with just 120 pounds, was conceding no more than six pounds to the opposition in the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap, the official attendance at Saratoga was being swollen by people leaving the track before the first race.
The “spinner” is a creature indigenous to Upstate New York and though the specific term is no longer entirely accurate the species is in no way endangered. Spinners appear in large numbers on Sundays during the racing season to gather whatever may be at hand and after a voracious frenzy retreat to their nests, laden with booty bearing the track’s logo.
Spinners have no interest in racing or betting. Their appearance in large numbers at this racetrack, however, is almost migratory. The lure of free stuff is seemingly as eternal at Saratoga as the place is timeless. Shirts, hats, umbrellas, mugs, folding lawn chairs, clocks, bags and glassware are enormously popular not for their quality or utility but because the cost in no more than the price of general admission, $3.00. Compared to the price of a beer at the track, this is indeed a bargain.
The term “spinner” has roots in the practice of repeated, at times frenzied exit and reentry in pursuit of as many admissions as necessary to secure the desired number of whatever was offered, but though it remains a part of the Saratoga lexicon is no longer accurate. In the interest of calming the chaos, the New York Racing Association some years ago permitted the sale of multiple vouchers. Now, the long lines are confined to areas inside the track and the most popular items, usually shirts, cause these to stretch the length of the apron — quarter pole to final post. Others snake through the backyard picnic grounds.
If racing is central to life in Saratoga, giveaways are next in importance in this part of the world. While promotions of this type have been met with overwhelming disinterest when attempted at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, the list of items to be given away during the Saratoga meeting is the subject of prominently displayed pre-meeting news stories in the upstate market when NYRA unveils the summer collection at an always well attended news conference. On Sunday, local television film crews and newspaper reporters were dispatched to cover the distribution of black caps emblazoned with the Saratoga 2011 logo. Only here is free stuff important news.
Caps, the current meeting’s first offering, are almost as popular as shirts both for their wide appeal and portability. While folding lawn chairs, for instance, can be cumbersome, pose transport and other logistical problems, an experienced spinner can easily leave the track with dozens of caps or tee-shirts in hand and be home before the National Anthem is played. The early bird gets the clothing.
In addition to forming the core of many a local wardrobe (Amazing how many people are seen standing on a redemption queue wearing last year’s tee-shirt while waiting for this year’s cap.), these items are found later wrapped as gifts and on Internet auction sites. Some will travel far. I have encountered people wearing Saratoga giveaway apparel while traveling in Central America and the Caribbean.
The crowd here on Sunday was typical by Saratoga standards and huge by modern racetrack standards. It was, however, nowhere near the announced total. Then again, who is splitting hairs? Spinning has become a part of the summer rite, a cultural ingredient that contributes to the flavor, important, though they may never watch a race or place a bet, to the participants, who are already plotting strategy for tee-shirt day, a date circled on their free calendars.
Originally Posted on ESPN