Saratoga Gaming & Raceway expanding

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY -- The Victorian ambiance of this charming little Upstate New York city is known far and wide in conjunction with various entertainment venues and the Saratoga Race Course thoroughbred horse racing season. A short hop away, however, a combination gambling venue is beginning to give it a run for its tourist dollar money.

Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a complex containing a harness racing track as well as a video gambling casino, is marking its third anniversary with an expansion.

The complex, the first video gaming facility in New York State, is adding room for 431 more video machines, which will bring the total to 1,700 by spring. The new gaming floor area also will include a "high limit" area woth games played in denominations up to $25.

A new restaurant, the Garden Buffet, will seat about 300, a complement to Fortunes, the multi-tiered upscale dining area that reopened in the summer of 2005. (See my review of Fortunes.)

Vapor, a nightclub that is part of the expansion, has been designed to host live performances, DJs and special events. It will feature two floors of seating and two bars.

Although the harness track opened in 1941, it had been operating for most years in the shadow of the iconic thoroughbred track until video gaming was approved by the state. Prior to its addition in 2004, the highest total purses were $3.1 million dollars, according to track officials Last year that rose to $12 million, and the handle increased last year to a record $64 million.

"On the 2006 Breeder's Cup day alone racing handle was a record $905,000," said John Matarazzo, director of racing operations. He projects that in 2007 the purses will exceed $13 million dollars. In 2007 there will be 170 live racing days and simulcasting will increase to seven days a week. Live racing resumes on February 2 at 7:00pm.

Details: The complex is located on Crescent Avenue in Saratoga Springs. Gaming hours are 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Simulcast races are shown daily. Live harness races begin at 7 p.m., with occasional 12:45 p.m. matinees at 12:45. The racing schedule is on the Web site.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)
Saratoga Race Course
National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame
Children's Museum
Grant Cottage State Historical Site
National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame
Saratoga Automobile Museum
• NYS Military Museum


An unkind cut for Ramsay USA

NEW YORK -- Brit celebri-chef Gordon Ramsay may be the darling of TV producers in his homeland and in the U.S., but his New York City restaurant debut wasn't greeted with glowing words by at least one reviewer.

New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt says the NYC unveiling of "Hell's Kitchen" star Ramsay "falls well short of heavenly."

With other American outposts on the drawing boards in Boca Raton, FL, and Los Angeles, that is not good press despite Ramsay's reputation for quality at his nine UK restaurants, including his eponymous one in London that is the only restaurant in England with a three-star Micheln rating.

Of course, that's merely one critic's opinion. Here's another, from a fellow Brit who knows Ramsay's work on the homefront.

If you're planning to be in NYC and want to try Gordon Ramsay's, it's located in The London, a midtown Manhattan hotel at 151 West 54th St.


We're bordering on insanity

Mexico is in such lovely shape even its police are being disarmed because of runaway lawlessness.

A few days ago, the federal government said it was sending 3,000 soldiers and police, backed by 28 boats, 21 planes and nine helicopters, to Tijuana -- located just across the border from San Diego, CA, and a major entry point to the U.S. for illegal drugs -- to help fight drug trafficking and gang violence.

In Tijuana, police have been ordered to surrender their firearms so federal officials can inspect them for any connection to drug smuggling operations. As a result, Tijuana cops are refusing to patrol unarmed. Not the dumbest decision in the world since 300 people were killed in gang-related violence in the city in 2006 and unarmed cops make tempting targets.

Of course, there could be a school of thought that disarming the local cops would help avoid any armed confrontation with the incoming authorities until they learn who's straight and who's crooked. Just surmising here.

Mexico certainly is a land of sharp contrasts. (See here and here.) A few weeks ago to the southeast of Tijuana, in Oaxaca state, there was armed rioting over unhappiness with the local government and troops had to be moved there to quell the rebellion. Coincidentally, I was traveling at the same time in relative serenity in Jalisco state, north of Oaxaca, on a tour of historic sites and tequila operations.

The only hint of danger I noticed was the positioning at regular intervals of well-armed federales -- Mexico's state police -- on the major east-west toll highway. It is known for its calmness, compared to the more direct but more dangerous unpatrolled free highway that runs roughly parallel to it.

Seeing grim-faced, stocky, camouflage-wearing, highly-armed federal police giving everyone the once-over at rest stops and at randomly-spaced checkpoints may give bad guys the willies, but they brought a certain contentment to the folks in my van.


Time and lava wait for no man

Once more I am reminded not to postpone things I'd really like to do. Not only is man's own lifespan a short one, but Nature is a fickle beast.

It was just a couple of years ago I was vacationing on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Nice place. Pretty vegetation, lush resorts, pleasant people. But, all in all, not a lot to do. However, I did have the opportunity to fly over to neighboring Montserrat, a tiny 10-by-7-mile island known for its natural beauty until a 1997 volcanic eruption covered half of it in ash and hardened lava, killed 19 people and drove half the remaining population of 10,000 off the island.

The attraction was to see up-close what a volcanic flow could do. Actually seeing it edge-by-edge with the unaffected part of the island, according to several residents of Montserrat I spoke with while they were on Antigua on business.

One thing led to another and I never did go. Now comes word that the Soufriere Hills volcano is acting up again (as seen here), tossing smoke and ash five miles in the air. The crater's lava dome continues to grow and experts say the mounting pressure could be released in a powerful blast. That would pretty much do in the rest of the island, and at least keep visitors from touching down there.

As Humphrey Bogart might have put it, the problems of one little tourist don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But, I still wish I had dropped in. It's not every day you can feel the earth move under your feet.


Mexican resort adds new spa

The Barcelo Maya Beach Resort in Mexico has opened a new spa facility at the all-inclusive resort complex that includes the Barcelo Maya Tropical and Colonial Beach Hotels. The twist here: Mayan-influenced architecture and European-style spa services.

The spa is located in a garden area of the resort. It includes a Mayan Temazal lodge, which it describes as "a traditional Indian sweat lodge," along with eight outdoor cabins for tropical massages, and such services such as facials, manicures, pedicures and hairstyling.

Adjacent to the spa is an expanded fitness center with exercies equipment as well as state of the art weight and fitness rooms.

The Barcelo Maya Beach Resort encompasses more than a mile of Caribbean beach protected by a natural coral reef and is surrounded by a nature park. It is less than 50 miles from the Cancun International Airport and is close to the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

The resort is comprised of four all-inclusive hotels that collectively offer nearly 2,000 guestrooms, 14 restaurants, and 10 bars as well as a variety of swimming pools, a children's water park, shopping galleries and two night clubs that feature live orchestras, nightly entertainment and dancing.

Barcelo Hotels and Resorts, established in 1931 in Spain, has a growing presence in Latin America with 32 hotels and more than 10,000 guestrooms in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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