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Friday, July 05, 2019

Boxed In

From the Racing Vault Dept.: The Saratoga Race Track is about to open for another season, swelling the small city into an urban blowfish as the out-of-towners cram in to get their betting thrills. New box seats and other amenities were installed last year, so the piece below is probably even more out of date. But it’s still a struggle to get those premium seats.


THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE is here to welcome you; the New York Racing Association will make it as easy as possible (traffic notwithstanding) for you to get to the track. But behind the well-wishers’ smiles is a fact of the track that reminds us why they’re them and we’re not.

Photo: New York Racing Association
You’re not likely to get into a clubhouse box seat at the track this summer unless you’ve got some very good connections. Track wisdom says that someone usually has to die before a box is released, and then it usually gets handed down with the estate.

In fact, you can spend years at the track without really noticing that it’s there. We of the proletariat are deflected from its hallowed aisles by a track design that sends us to bleachers and grandstand. But the box seats afford the choicest view, straddling the finish line, just out of reach of the dust.

“How many seats do you want?” I didn’t take the question seriously when I called Belmont Park in late July to ask about the boxes. Just looking for information, I explained, and was telephone-transferred to a polite woman who decided my question was better confronted by customer service.

“Hold on! I’m the only one here!” Customer service was swamped that day, and the attendant had to confess that she didn’t really know anything about the boxes.

If I wouldn’t mind holding ...

Almost 70 years ago, this compelling headline appeared on the front page of the Saratogian: “Demand for Boxes Exceeds Supply: Several Well Known Racing Figures, Who Were Late With Applications, Compelled to Watch Sport From Grandstand This Year.”

A paragraph follows to amplify the problem, then 109 names of “those who have taken boxes for the season.” Anybody familiar?

Payne and E.F. Whitney are listed, names very familiar to the racing world. And. of course, there are still Whitneys in the boxes, right down in the most prestigious row. Cornelius and Mary Lou are in A-24, while Mrs. John Hay is down the aisle in A-34.

These aren’t the merely monied: the people who line the track are the breeders, the stud farm owners whose estates dot the Virginia and Kentucky countrysides.

“We have a few boxes we set aside to issue on a daily basis.” This was the word from Belmont, back on the line. “But most of them are owned by people who subscribe year after year. They’re usually only given up after someone is deceased.”

The clubhouse has 312 boxes arranged in six lettered rows; there are 44 in the less-swanky grandstand. And there are five seats per box, for a total of 1780 high-class seats. Row A is, of course, the best of all places: here are the wealthy, the farm owners. Drift back a row and you’re among the younger money and entertainment people. By the time you reach row F, you’re with an assemblyman or two.

To obtain one of the daily-basis boxes, you address Mary DiStefano, the manager of clubhouse relations. Each racing morning she entertains requests. But you need more than just persistence to get one: they’d prefer you to be a horse owner, trainer or to maintain some affiliation with the track. “We have assemblymen and people like that calling all the time, and we usually have to put them way in the back,” said my informant.

Unless you’re Governor of the State of New York, in which case you occupy box A-30, directly over the finish line. Just next to him is John Von Stade, executive vice president of the National Museum of Racing. His father, Frederick, was the last president of the Saratoga Race Course before NYRA took it over, and his family has passed the box along for many decades.

In 1935, when trackside gossip was front-page stuff, we learned that Mrs. John Hay Whitney was a late arrival for the opening, and her husband even later. Down the aisle, Mrs. Payne Whitney was entertaining a visitor from Virginia. “Mrs. Margaret Emerson and son, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, were at their box at the races and had as guests Mr. and Mrs. Frederick M. Alger of New York and Chicago.” Alfred Gwynne still sits trackside at good old A-33, having attended races for 65 years.

Say you’ve persuaded the clubhouse guard that you are, indeed, a racetrack worthy, and won yourself a box for a day. It’s not just the seat that makes the millionaire, it’s the appearance. As traditions fall by the wayside in restaurants and theaters, the clubhouse boxes stubbornly hang onto a stern dress code, specifying jackets and ties for the gentlemen and a skirt, dress or pants suit for the ladies. Nothing more casual will be tolerated, and a guard in a bright red blazer is likely to tap your non-jacketed shoulder and eject you should you transgress.

A trip to the clubhouse boxes really is a slip back in time; you live the world of stooper and tout and join a quieter throng for whom the years seem to roll by just a little less quickly. I’m sure the wagers there are larger; I could swear the champagne is a little bit drier, the pate foie gras just a little more rich.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 2 August 1989

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