An afternoon at the Spa

"If the visitor really belongs to the Saratoga circle, he will bring an entourage of fifteen to twenty servants, and probably arrive in his private railroad car. In these days of automobiles, when half a dozen friends are likely to drop in on any weekend, it is convenient to have a car in the railroad." -- James C. Young, The New York Times, August, 1930.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Summertime in Saratoga Springs is not quite like the scene described in the Times almost 80 years ago, when it was often referred to as Camelot in the Adirondacks, but a half-dozen friends dropping by on any weekend remains a distinct possibility and the racing community's annual respite from the real world remains the keenly anticipated centerpiece of the Eastern racing season, a symbolic return to the womb.

The "horsey-set" society that once made Saratoga its own has all but disappeared, as have the expansive private stables they once raced here. The luxurious hotels that once dominated the downtown landscape are long gone from Broadway, which now boasts retail names found in almost every town in America. A flurry of construction at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion near the nation's oldest racetrack and another at Greentree, the adjacent training facility once owned by the Whitney family, are sudden reminders that both are now owned by people with addresses in Dubai.

No longer do members of the privileged class sail upstream on the Hudson River from New York to Schuylerville, where once their ancestors found chauffeurs and limousines awaiting their arrival for the 20-mile drive to summer mansions on North Broadway but the local hotels, far less grand than those of Saratoga's gilded age, are booked nevertheless for the next six weekends. The trains from New York no longer transport horses and bookmakers, but day-trippers wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts. In many ways, Saratoga has changed dramatically. In many ways, it remains timeless.

Saratoga's present is the sum of its past. The ghosts of its sometimes bawdy history still haunt the place: John Morrissey, once the heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing champion of the world turned bookmaker, who with funds amassed from the losses of the well-heeled clients of his New York City gambling dens founded the racetrack with sponsorship from the more socially acceptable if somewhat narcissistic William R. Travers, who promptly named a race after himself that remains the centerpiece of the meeting, and John R. Hunter. The colorful, audacious gambler John W. "Bet-a-Million" Gates, Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell are the best-remembered of those who reveled here in sometimes gluttonous, exhibitionistic counterpoint to the staid stalwarts of the Industrial Revolution aristocracy -- the Whitneys, Wideners, Riddles, Woodwards, Bostwicks, Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Phippses. Saratoga has always been a place in which class distinction and social position are temporarily subtle.

Then, as now, summertime in Saratoga revolved around horses -- the races and sales. For the next six weeks, most of the best horses in training and the as yet unknown juveniles who will blossom into the young stars of autumn and beyond will be assembled to pursue the most coveted of titles contested during the summer.

"It was the racetrack that made Saratoga the legend that it was destined to become," Bernard Livingston wrote in his 1973 tome, 'Their Turf.' "If you belonged to this select group, you were out to your stables in the early hours to watch your own thoroughbreds breeze through their workouts in the morning mists. Following this, there was breakfast at trackside or occasional bacon and eggs with the stable help in their own kitchen. Then, back to the cottage for a respite.

"After rest, or more play, or a few telegrams to Wall Street, you had lunch and then to the races. The races! Stroll through the green, shaded paddock, lady in arm, to admire the thoroughbred you had petted in the barn in the morning. Back to the box to consult with your trainer -- and isn't that Brady over there with Lillian Russell? No, dear, it's not Brady; it's that even more vulgar Bet-a-Million or what have you Gates … rejoin you presently, my dear. Order some more bubbly … must see what Gates is up to."

The personalities and the times have changed, but little else.

Forty-one stakes, 13 Grade 1, will be run at Saratoga in 36 days. The races, important showcases on dirt and grass for horses of every age and specialty, have made Saratoga America's racetrack, the single most important meeting of the year, not only for horses and their connections but for horseplayers free in the current age from the restrictions of geography and distance.

Anticipation of this meeting begins to gather momentum shortly after the dust of the Triple Crown settles on the morning after the Belmont Stakes. The often monotonous drumbeat of year-round racing that Aqueduct and Belmont Park yields is muffled in a leafy, verdant environment in which racing is the thing around which all life revolves, forever new, a phenomenon unique in this country to Saratoga much in the way Galway, Royal Ascot, Deauville and Baden-Baden are highlights of the European summer. The sun shines more brightly, the rain falls harder, the beer is colder, the racing is better, the crowds bigger, the nights later, the parties longer. For six weeks, every day except dark Tuesdays is Saturday.

Saratoga is also a glimpse of everything to which the industry aspires but achieves for more than one day at a time only here, an example of less being more and therefore exclusive. The season is brief and well-defined. The crowds are large and younger than those in New York -- that elusive demographic present in large and enthusiastic numbers. It is in every respect the answer to racing's great question: How are new fans drawn to racing?


An afternoon at the Spa.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.