The Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program kicks off its 10th season, providing food and activities for backstretch workers beginning July 21, opening day of the Saratoga Race Course racing season.
The program was begun by Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson as a way of giving back to the people who care for Thoroughbreds day in and day out, and is still organized by them and through their office.
This summer's events include a Lake George cruise, Karaoke singing contest, bowling night, rodeo, and basketball and billiards tournaments. Legendary racecaller Tom Durkin serves as master of ceremonies for a weekly bingo tournament, there is a weekly soccer night on a brand new field off Union Avenue, and there are weekly gourmet dinners featuring a variety of international cuisines. There are also classes where English and Spanish are taught.
Farms such as Gainesway and Live Oak Plantation are donors, as are horsemen such as Neil Howard, Leonard Riggio, John Oxley, Steven Duncker, Tracy Farmer, and Barry K. Schwartz.
"We are honored to be involved with this," said Hendrickson, speaking for himself and his wife, Whitney. "We wanted to change the way we interact with backstretch workers. It's had a great impact, and it couldn't be done without all the donors and hundreds of volunteers. Everyone wants to contribute. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to put it on each year, and not one penny has ever been paid for administration or salaries. It’s all for food and fun.
"It's fun to see Tom Durkin go in and out of Spanish and Italian while he's calling the bingo games. And there are some really great prizes.
"But the main reason we started this is that Marylou said Saratoga should be the summer place to be for everyone. And this is our favorite charity, without a doubt, and we try and get out there for it several times a week. This is a labor of love and we truly enjoy doing it. I hope this serves as a model for other racetracks."