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Martin Benjamin


And . . . They’re Out!
As New York enacts its public-smoking ban, stock characters at Saratoga Race Course are banished to the past—or at least as far as the backyard
By Kathryn Ceceri

It’s a beautiful, sunny day, which means the temperature on the clipped green lawns and around the quaint wooden benches by the rail at Saratoga Race Course is just about unbearable, and I’m looking for a sign.

No, not a voice from the heavens saying who to bet in the fifth (though I wouldn’t say no to a good tip). I mean an actual sign.

You know, like the ones I see all over that warn “No Coolers” in the buildings. Or the ones that announce “No Betting” by people under 18.

And then suddenly I see it. There’s a short muscular guy on a ladder with a bunch of them in his hand over by one of the entrances to the grandstand’s underside, where the betting windows and beer stands are, and he’s tacking them up overhead.

“No Smoking.”

Last Thursday, day two of the 135th meet of thoroughbred horse racing in Saratoga Springs, was the end of an era for some at Saratoga Race Course. In a city once known as the playground for New York’s gangster elite—a place still drawing the eye of the law for possibly shady gambling rackets—you can no longer enjoy the vice of sitting in the stands or the Clubhouse, taking a drag on your Marlboro and a swig of your Miller Lite while combing the Racing Form for a sure thing.

No more will the socialites and the tycoons get to lounge in their private boxes, drawing slowly on their filter tips before laying money on the stable of the fellow down the row. No, with New York State’s new ban on smoking in business establishments kicking in, the smokers have to leave their shady recesses and join the sweaty groundlings down below.

“It’s becoming like a police state,” gripes Amanda McGean, who’s just stubbed out her cigarette. “It makes people want to smoke more when you’re told you can’t.”

Over by the guy with the signs, McGean, a native of Liverpool, England, her Irish mother-in-law Marge, and friend Janice Hovey of Poestenkill have come down out of their grandstand seats for a smoke. Nothing like this has spread to the other side of the Atlantic. For them, the new rules are a slap in the face when they’d just come for a little fun.

“I’m used to coming up here and relaxing,” said Hovey, “having a cigarette where and when I choose. I find it offensive.”

With New York Racing Association officials hoping Saratoga’s season will be hotter than ever, between local equine hero Funny Cide and the new film Seabiscuit (and with the state attorney general still looking into some of NYRA’s more questionable activities), figuring out where people can and cannot smoke apparently has not been a top priority.

So it’s not until now, day three, that the “No Smoking” signs are actually going up. And perched on his ladder, young Cody Coulter seems to be getting the worst of it from the ladies.

“I’m just a union carpenter,” he protests. “I’m just hanging up the signs. And now I’m going to light up,” he adds.

Yet for all the grief Coulter’s getting, it seems to be a quiet revolution going on. Though the signs are just going up, smokers at the track already seem resigned to their fate. Yes, there’s still the occasional seasoned gambler wedged into his chair under the grandstand by the TV monitors, chomping a stogie over his crumpled-up handicapping sheet. But on the steps of the grandstand, NYRA employee Miya Branch, in her first season as a whitecap helping patrons find their seats, says she hasn’t had to stop anyone from trying to sneak a smoke.

“The only complaint,” she offers, “was one lady who said a guy was smoking a cigar.”

And what about those archetypal old geezers who drop ash on you as you squeeze in next to them at the rail? They and their cigars have been banned from the stands for quite some time, say next-generation aficionados Phil Carne and Jim Gaffigan.

Savoring their stogies in the track’s “backyard,” the buddies from Red Bank, N.J., aren’t too put out over being relegated to the picnic area; they mostly indulge outdoors anyway, usually while playing golf or at the races down at Monmouth Park. But coming from a state that still allows cigarettes in bars, they’re not impressed by New York’s new rules.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Gaffigan.

Reluctantly, carpenter Coulter points out the biggest irony of all: Nobody’s going to give up smoking just because the state tells them to.

“No one wants to be a smoker,” he says. “It’s not something you’re proud of. But I think it all boils down to willpower and determination. It’s a drug, an addicting thing. There’s no smoker out there who doesn’t want to quit.”

And picking up his ladder and his signs, Coulter continues down the grandstand at historic Saratoga Race Course, where another small piece of history is gone like a puff of smoke.

This Week in Saratoga

Saturday, Aug. 2

Saratoga Farmers Market. High Rock Park, Saratoga Springs. Saturdays, 9 AM-1 PM.

Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 2-3:30 PM: Sculpture for Traveling. Make collapsible sculptures that can be folded. Saturdays through 8/30: Family Saturdays. 580-8080.

Vigil for Peace. In front of the post office on Broadway and Church Street, Saratoga Springs. Saturdays, noon-1 PM: Hosted by the Saratoga Peace Alliance, all are welcome to attend. 272-1468.

Sunday, Aug. 3

13th Annual AIDS Council Saratoga, New York Benefit. National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs. 6-8:30 PM: Cocktail and buffet with a reception, featuring live music and a silent auction of unique items and services. 434-4686 ext 217.

Adam Oates Celebrity Golf will take place at Saratoga National Golf Club, Saratoga Springs. Some players that are scheduled to attend include Adam Oates, Olaf Kolzig, Bobby Hull, Marcel Dionne and more. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children. Proceeds will benefit the Senior Services of Albany Foundation. 426-5187.

Monday, Aug. 4

Camp Saratoga Fun Run Series will be held at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, Scout Road, Wilton. The course is 5K in length on wooded trails. The race is open to all and $3 per person at the door. 584-3488.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs. 10:30 AM: Bill Nack, six time winner of the Eclipse Award for outstanding newspaper writing, will speak. 584-0400.

Tuesday, Aug. 5

Borders Books & Music, 395 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 7 PM: Nan Mooney will lead a discussion and sign her book My Racing Heart. 583-1200.

Children’s Museum at Saratoga, 69 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs. 10 AM-noon: Summertime Tots program with finger-painting, pavement pictures, and more. For more information call 584-5540.

Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center, Saratoga Springs. 9 AM-4:30 PM: Saratoga Institute on Racing and Wagering Law. 445-2329.

Skidmore Scholoarship Benefit, “Polo by Twilight” will be held from 5:30-8:30 PM at the Saratoga Polo Field. Music and an auction will be featured. Admission is $125. 580-5671.

Wednesday, Aug. 6

A Day at the Races will be held at 11:30 AM at the Paddock Tent located at the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs. Buffet Luncheon, Silent Auction. Standard Tickets are $65. Clubhouse Admission is included. Clubhouse Attire is suggested. 274-3110.

Children’s Museum at Saratoga, 69 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs. 11 AM-12:30 PM: Children’s “Be Art-rageous” program, featuring different themes. Advance registration required. 584-5540.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs. 11 AM-noon: Shaun Bridgmohan, steeplechase jockey Tom Foley, Jose Santos (winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide), and Shane Sellers will speak. 584-0400.

Saratoga Farmers Market. High Rock Park, Saratoga Springs. Wednesdays, 3-6 PM.

Saratoga Peace Alliance Peace Study Group. Saratoga Springs Public Library, Susman room, Saratoga Springs. 7-9 PM: A discussion of the “Road Map to Peace” in the Middle East. For information, e-mail

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax presents A Conversation with Emanuel Ax. Works by Beethoven and Brahms. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 1, except Tuesdays.

Location Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $8 clubhouse, children under 12 free: seats are $5 and $8, respectively.

Parking $7 per car at the main gate and $5 across Union Avenue at the Oklahoma Training Track.

Racing At least nine races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 23, when it’s 12:30 PM).

Major Stakes Races The Whitney Handicap (Aug. 2); The Jim Dandy (Aug. 3); The Sword Dancer Invitational (Aug. 9); Alabama Stakes (Aug. 16); Travers Stakes (Aug. 23); Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 30).

Promotional Item Giveaways T-shirt (Aug. 3); Baseball Cap (Aug. 10); Wall clock (Aug. 17); T-shirt (Aug. 31).


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