Saratoga Stories: Weber relishes tour guide post

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John Weber, a tour guide at Saratoga for more than two decades, loves to answer people’s questions and give them insight into the racetrack world. Timothy Littau Photo.

(Editor’s Note: Who’s ready for Saratoga now that we’ve moved into the New Year? We feel it too, and figured we’d kick off the season with a piece that unfortunately never made the pages of The Saratoga Special in 2022. Special thanks to John Weber for the visit with our own Timothy Littau back in August, before the latter headed back for his senior year at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!)

By Timothy Littau

Grooms, hotwalkers, trainers, owners, security guards, journalists and of course horses keep the backside bustling during summers in Saratoga Springs. Sometimes, walking between the barns, are groups of 20 to 30 spectators of all different ages, often led by tour guide John Weber.

“What I joke about on my tours is that you should walk around this place, see races from different angles and before you do, put a pen or pencil in your ear,” Weber said last summer at Saratoga Race Course. “And somebody will ask you a question, because this is a place where you look very smart with a pen or pencil in your ear.”

Now he is the one answering the questions and has been for 21 years.

“I started in 2001,” Weber said. “It’s funny because I told my wife ‘I’ll just get a job for a year and see what it’s like.’ Twenty-one years later I’m still here, and love giving these tours. The first job fair that I came to when I walked in, there were a couple guards there and they said ‘you’ve got to be a guard, you’ve got to be a guard,’ because I’m big and tall. I said ‘no, I don’t want to be a guard, I want to work in guest services and I want to answer people’s questions.’ ”

Answering questions isn’t all Weber does; as he enjoys talking about history, fun facts and stories from the track.

Simply put, “people remember stories.”

Weber is also an innovator. More than 13 years ago and already a seasoned backside tour guide, Weber went to a NYRA executive’s office with a plan. The executive expected Weber to ask for a raise. He did not, and instead asked for more work by suggesting NYRA start giving tours of the frontside.

“We should start some new tours here, there are people here who are new to the racetrack, only come during Saratoga and they need to know their way around a little bit,” Weber recalled saying that day.

Weber did not know his way around the track until he was an adult. Despite living near the track, his first trip to it was not until age 19 while on a date. The date wanted to introduce Weber to some people she knew at the track.

“I was against it,” he said. “I said ‘we can lose our money at the racetrack,’ which of course I was right about. As soon as I walked into the place, I knew – I hadn’t placed a bet, I hadn’t done anything except get past the turnstiles – and I knew right away that I’d be back. I hadn’t done anything but step into the place and I knew that it was going to somehow be a part of my life.”

Weber wasn’t a racetracker until that job fair in 2001. Before then he worked a variety of jobs: at Fort Hudson Nursing Home, at a company called TV Data, teaching computers at Hudson Falls Middle School and delivering newspapers for Hamilton News, the latter yielding free copies of Daily Racing Form.

None compare to being a tour guide.

“You feel good about yourself,” Weber said. “People are generally glad that you did what you did. I worked for a company for 25 years and I got paid to do it but not everybody’s glad to see you at work. Sometimes you feel like you’re not appreciated. Here you’re always appreciated for what you do and people say it. I’ll have people that’ll sign up for a frontside tour after a backstretch tour and they’ll ask ‘is John going to do it? I’ll wait for John, what time is he going to do a tour?’ ”

Some tours have been touching, while others, humbling.

“I did a tour for Carl Hanford, trainer of Kelso,” Weber said. “He was going into the Hall of Fame that day. Everybody was clapping for him, all the way through the tour. And we get to the last stop and he comes up to me and says ‘I apologize for ruining your tour.’ This is a guy that’s going into the Hall of Fame, and he’s apologizing to me? For wrecking the tour? I said ‘Mr. Hanford, you made the tour.’ He gave all the credit to Kelso, and I’m not sure that he should have. He was just a really nice guy.”

For some groups, Weber is the star of the day.

“This one lady took more pictures than anybody else. I finally said to the group, ‘this lady has taken a record number of pictures. Nobody has taken this many pictures before.’ So everybody laughed, said goodbye at the end. I was getting ready to leave, it’s like 5 o’clock at the end of the afternoon, sometimes I stay until the end of the races. And I see her coming. And she’s got her camera. And she goes ‘I just need one more to finish the day.’ And she took my picture.”

Every day brings about a new tour and new stories to tell. Weber’s father, kept tethered to an oxygen tank due to COPD, especially appreciated hearing the stories.

“My father didn’t go to the track very much, but he always wanted to know what was going on there. He always got a kick out of the fact that I worked at the racetrack,” Weber said. “When I first got the job, my father, who passed away in 2007, I came over to him on the first day and told him a story about phony travelers’ checks that people were trying to pass off. He goes ‘John, there’s a story every day at that racetrack. And you need to stop here everyday and tell me what that story was.’ He’s absolutely right. I never stopped enough but I stopped a lot and told him the stories. He was absolutely right, there’s a story every day at the racetrack. Probably several.”

Weber isn’t sure how much longer he will work his beat at Saratoga, with his wife recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“My wife was a nurse at Albany Med but she’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so she had to retire, and she’s in Florida now with my son,” Weber said. “It affects her some days now but it’s not too bad yet. She’s fairly young. I’ll be 71, she’s 68. She was just recently diagnosed with it, she’s taking the medication. Some days are worse than others, we know it’s going to get worse. Possibly I won’t be able to do this in a couple years but we’ll see how it goes.”

But for now, Weber will enjoy the time that he does spend at Saratoga.

“It’s a crazy job because it lasts for 40 days yet you talk about it for the rest of the year,” he said. “This isn’t even a job. This is nothing but fun. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s got to be fun.”