Victorian town has races every August


July 21, 1991|By Christiane Bird

"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.

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