By Mike Kane
Saratoga Springs, NY–Following form, the past and the present collide at Saratoga Race Course as a new season begins at America’s ancient and wildly popular track.
Only half-jokingly cautioning that there might still be wet paint on some surfaces, David O’Rourke, the new president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, presided over the opening of the 1863 Club Tuesday afternoon. The $30-million, three-story, 36,000 square-foot structure with a gleaming copper roof was built on the space next to the 91-year-old clubhouse that has long been the home of the At the Rail Pavilion dining tent. It is connected to the clubhouse by a bridge that spans the path horses take from the paddock to the track prior to every race.
Joining the white tent in Saratoga history are the trailers on the first turn that served as “luxury boxes” since 2003. They have been replaced by a striking modern winterized building designed by Matt Hurff.
The first floor–The Rail at the 1863 Club–has buffet dining for up to 500 people. The second floor is split between the Founder’s Room and Legends Hall, a space that can be reserved and can accommodate groups of up to 100 people. The top floor has five suites, two of which have been rented for the entire meet. The Founder’s Room is connected to the old clubhouse by the bridge, but requires a separate admission. According to NYRA, prices for dining on the first floor range from $150 per person on Sundays and Labor Day to $300 on Whitney Day,
Aug. 3. A seasonal package price for the Founder’s Room is $6,000 per person, but other options are available.
“It was the one piece of real estate that made sense to develop,” O’Rourke said. “I think everybody bought in on that and that is important whenever you do a project up here. There are so many stakeholders. It could be difficult, but it’s much better to get consensus on it. And it’s not the type of place, obviously, where you’re going to make quick decisions. It’s Saratoga. This building was a logical investment for us.”
While some past NYRA administrations made updates at the track with little or no input from the local community, the 1863 Club was a collaborative effort that included Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation.
“Change has always been part of Saratoga Race Course and not always easily accepted at first,” Bosshart said. “The opening of the 1863 Club marks one of the largest single investments to be made since the current clubhouse was built in 1928.”
Hurff, 47, noted that the until the 1960s horses entered the track on a path flanked by Doric columns under the clubhouse. The bridge between the clubhouse and the 1863 Club is meant to recreate that feeling.
“That was the prime driver for it,” Hurff said. “There was a real ceremony that was lost when that became a bar area. We really wanted to restore that sense of arrival, of entry, onto the track.”
Funding for 1863 Club came from the 4 percent of gross gaming revenue of the VLTs at the Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack. The percentage was set in the contract that allowed for gaming beyond racing at Aqueduct. The new building is the largest addition to the track since 1965 when NYRA spent a reported $3.5 million to extend the grandstand by 550 feet, added 2,600 seats, two escalators, new dining facilities and more mutuel windows.
Hurff, who earned his master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, has lived in Saratoga Springs since 2001. He is a partner in Frost Hurff Architects and has worked on several other projects at the track. He said the copper roof for the 1863 Club matches what he has done on parts of the track and was an effort for a different, yet appropriate look.
“We wanted something that was a material that was here, but there is so much slate on that whole stretch of building that we felt it might be a little too redundant to put more slate on,” he said. “It kind of shows that the building is new, but it still ties it into the aesthetic of the property here.”
Hurff said that as he created plans for the building with huge windows facing the track he was careful to respect the reasons why Saratoga Race Course is beloved and has stood the test of time.
“The struggle is that you wanted all the comfort of an enclosed building but you wanted that open Saratoga porch feel,” he said. “People come here because of the way it feels to be here. They come to watch to watch the horses, but more people would not come here if the place wasn’t the way it was. I was very concerned about preserving the character because if you mess up the character here then it all falls apart.”