SARATOGA: HAVEN OF THE HORSY SET Victorian town has races every August


"Dukes and kooks, counts and no-accounts, stars and czars have added to the legend of Saratoga, where it isn't enough to stay the 30 days. Staying the 30 nights is the true test of stamina."

So wrote Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form of the horse-racing scene at Saratoga, where they have been racing horses for nearly 150 years. Today, not too much has changed in this cozy Victorian town, located about 175 miles north of New York City and 15 miles west of the Hudson River.

For 11 months out of the year, Saratoga is a pleasant enough place, known for its first-rate performing arts center, its 19th century wooden mansions and its still-active mineral springs. But during the 12th month, the town turns itself upside down with the buyers and sellers of dreams. From dawn until dusk and then on from dusk until dawn, socialites mix with businessmen mix with tourists mix with breeders and trainers and grooms. And all for the love of the horse.

The Saratoga track, built in 1864, is the oldest racetrack in America, and it's long represented the very best of what racing has to offer. Louisville may have the Kentucky Derby and Baltimore the Preakness, but it is to Saratoga that the serious cognoscenti come, every August, for 24 to 30 days of exclusive racing (the meets traditionally have lasted four weeks, but this year's event has been extended to five). Attendance at the sprawling, Victorian-era grandstand -- complete with striped awnings, clapboard siding, gilded cupolas and thousands upon thousands of white-purple-pink petunias -- averages 28,000 a day. The average betting per day is $3 1/2 million.

This year's meet will run from July 24 to Aug. 26 and, as usual, there's racing every day but Tuesday. Most tracks present one stakes race (featuring top-of-the-line horses) a week; Saratoga has one daily (usually the eighth race). Saratoga is also one of the best tracks in the world at which to get a close-up view of the horses, who are walked through the crowd before being saddled and shown off in an easily accessible paddock before each race. Another unusual Saratoga feature are the steeplechase races (over jumps) held on Thursdays and Fridays.

Saratoga racing spotlights the year's up-and-coming 2-year-olds (who may go on to win next year's Triple Crown), which is one reason why it attracts so many top owners, trainers and breeders from around the country. The centerpiece of the meet is the $1 million Travers Stakes, sometimes known as the Midsummer Derby, held on the next-to-last Saturday. Man o'War won the Travers in 1920, setting a time record that wasn't broken until 1962; and it was won by Easy Goer in 1989 and by Rhythm in 1990.

Equally important -- especially from the horseman's point of view -- are the prestigious three-day Fasig-Tipton sales, usually held near the beginning of the meet, when the country's top yearlings are auctioned off for prices up to $1 million. The actual auctions are not open to the public, but the proceedings are broadcast live via closed-circuit television to a comfortable picnic area nearby; and there's plenty of opportunity to see the colts and fillies as they parade to and from the auction pavilion.

For the tourist, a typical day at Saratoga begins at 7 a.m. That's when a hot breakfast is served trackside while grooms put horses through their morning workouts. At breakfast -- which is served a la carte, with most items (steak and eggs, fresh strawberries and cream) under $10 -- the program includes expert trackside commentary, a tour of the barn area, a starting gate demonstration and a handicapping seminar. The breakfast lasts until 9:30 a.m., but it's a good idea to get there early, as long lines form after 7:30 a.m.

The races begin at 1:30 p.m. Admission is $2 to the grandstand, $5 to the clubhouse; and there are closed-circuit television monitors spread throughout the grounds, at which some spectators set up lawn chairs. Saratoga is a class act: Shorts are not allowed in the clubhouse, and a sports jacket is required in the track's Turf Terrace restaurant (where most entrees run $12 to $18).

For the novice bettor, the New York Racing Association puts out an excellent orientation booklet that explains the whys and hows of racing. One page explains how to read the daily racing program, another how to place a bet. Bets can start as low as $1, and nine races are run daily.

After the ninth race is run, some head to the clubhouse for drinks and music while others -- still hungering for more of their favorite animal -- head to the polo grounds. Polo was re-introduced in Saratoga 11 years ago, after a 45-year hiatus, and it's now played on most Tuesday afternoons and weekend evenings throughout the racing season. Admission to the pristine polo grounds, where Rolls-Royces park next to Subarus, is $5.

Among those who frequent Saratoga nowadays are society folks such as the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts and the Phippses, and horse racing celebrities such as trainers Shug McGaughey and D. Wayne Lucas and jockeys Angel Cordero and Chris Antley. The most coveted social event of the season is Marylou Whitney's Ball, to which she invites some 300 of her nearest and dearest famed and fortuned friends, most of whom have some connection to the racing world.

Those not on the list have to content themselves with such local watering holes as Siro's -- 168 Lincoln Ave., (518) 584-4030 -- a swank bar and restaurant that long has catered to the horsy set, and Sperry's -- 30 Caroline St., (518) 584-9618 -- whose art deco decor attracts an arts-and-letters crowd.

It's all very impressive, perhaps, but really, it's nothing compared to the old days, when the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan and Diamond Jim Brady could be seen on the streets of Saratoga. Diamond Jim usually would turn up with 20 or 30 Japanese houseboys (one of whom once lifted enough Havanas from his boss to go into business for himself upon returning to New York City) and actress Lillian Russell. Diamond Jim, no slouch when it came to his nickname, once wore 2,548 diamonds with an evening outfit, while Lillian often brought along a spaniel wearing a $1,800 collar.

The town of Saratoga itself, located within walking distance of the track, is well worth exploring. Lined with wooden Victorian houses -- many of which are rented out for exorbitant prices during the racing season -- it's got a friendly Americana feel. Downtown are many small shops, the splendid 1870s Adelphi Hotel (the last of the town's Victorian hotels) and Congress Park. The park houses Canfield's Casino, a solid red-brick building that's now a museum.

The Saratoga Springs, which are the only naturally carbonated mineral springs east of the Rockies, were discovered by the Iroquois Indians. Later, the waters -- said to cure everything from indigestion to gout -- became a lure for such visitors as George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. In the early 1930s, the greatest cluster of springs was turned into an elegant European-style health spa.

Today, that spa -- complete with peaceful pools and classical pavilions -- has become a state park, and it's still visited for its waters, as well as for its rambling roads, towering pines and 18-hole golf course. The 2,000-acre park is home to the posh Gideon-Putnam Hotel, which once catered exclusively to guests taking "the cure," and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The SPAC, which presents a different show every night of the racing season, is the summer home of the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It hosts a wide range of other artists as well. Some of last season's featured performers included Jimmy Buffet, Chicago, Kenny G, John Denver and Cleo Laine.

Also in Saratoga is Yaddo (Union Avenue, past the racetrack), an artistic retreat whose moody, atmospheric gardens are open to the public, and the National Museum of Dance, the only such museum in the country. It's located on South Broadway; telephone (518) 584-2225).

When you get right down to it, however, few Saratoga visitors have time for such cultural amenities. They're much too busy dreaming the dreams of kings while watching that most glorious of steeds, the thoroughbred horse.

For more information, write the Greater Saratoga Chamber of Commerce at 494 Broadway, Suite 212, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 12866, or call (518) 584-3255. Or, when in town, stop by the information booth at the entrance to Congress Park (open daily in July, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in August, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.).

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