Enchanting meet Saratoga Springs: No place can match the sustained gaiety and exquisite horse racing that hits this upstate New York town each summer.

August 30, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Maybe it's the cabdriver who, transporting you a half-hour upstate from the airport at Albany, flicks on his radio for the live call of the third race from Saratoga.

Insisting he doesn't bet anymore, you understand, he steers with one hand while clinging to the marked-up racing page of his local newspaper with the other.

Or maybe it's the chilled Saratoga Sunrise with next morning's breakfast during workouts at the track. The fruity vodka elixir ensures a smooth transition from the humdrum into this enchanting galaxy known since the Civil War as summer racing at Saratoga.

"I do think it's unique. And everybody says it's unique and special," says Edward Hotaling, author of the book "They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga," published last year. "It's more than a racetrack, more than a resort, more than a nostalgic experience.

"Saratoga is an indefinable atmosphere you walk around with. It's very close to what Hemingway had in mind when he called Paris a movable feast. You may leave the place, but you carry it around in your mind for years."

For 5 1/2 weeks each summer, Saratoga provides America's most intense, consuming horse-racing experience in what the New York Times describes as country grandeur with a state-fair tone.

The Kentucky Derby in Louisville and perhaps the Preakness in Baltimore may rival it for one day, but for sustained gaiety and exquisite racing, no place matches this town of Victorian opulence and its historic racetrack in the foothills of the Adirondacks.

"The whole town is thoroughly impregnated with the spirit of racing," says Hotaling, a native of Saratoga Springs who works as a writer and producer at the NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington. "And that spirit has existed almost since day one."

In a 1903 article for the Thoroughbred Record, Frank W. Thorp noted: "There is a charm about racing at Saratoga which one does not feel at any other track. The environment is so attractive you feel that it is real sport; that you are part of a holiday crowd out for a lark. All is life, jollity and glitter. The whole world seems prosperous at Saratoga."

Prosperous indeed. Charlie Githler, a lawyer from Rochester, cocks his head toward the box seats of the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and other blue-bloods and says: "Think of the money sitting up there. They could pay off the national debt if they wanted to."

Githler has come to Saratoga not merely for the races. Earlier in the day he served as best man at a wedding at the track's Big Red Spring, named for Man o' War, the chestnut colt who won five races here but in 1919 lost the only one in his brilliant 21-race career -- to a horse named Upset.

At Big Red Spring, Diane Chevron, a 47-year-old actress, wedded James Wright, a 65-year-old retired high school art teacher. They live in Rochester, and this is their fifth year attending the races together at Saratoga.

"He introduced me to racing," Chevron says of her new husband, "and I also fell in love with it. When we decided to get married, I said I'd like to do it in Saratoga.

"It's a very special place. It's the creme de le creme here."

Dressed to the nines, the groom wore a straw boater, and his bride a wide-brim hat with wave upon wave of lace.

"Saratoga begs for a great hat," Chevron says.

Population doubles

Saratoga, the oldest racetrack in the country, opened in 1864 -- although thoroughbred racing here commenced the year before, one month after the Battle of Gettysburg, at a smaller course across Union Avenue that still exists called Horse Haven.

Contrary to widespread belief, the racetrack did not make Saratoga Springs. The village already was a national resort because of its mineral springs, grand hotels and lavish casinos. In fact, says Tom Gilcoyne, historian and librarian of this town's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, racing sprang up to give patrons something to do in the afternoon while waiting for the gambling halls to open at night.

But today, the racetrack is the star, and the restaurants, museums, performing arts center, parks and lively downtown its supporting cast.

Saratoga Springs' population of 26,000 doubles every day there's racing -- this year from July 26 to Sept. 2. An average of 24,000 customers bet $3 million every day.

And they do it in this carnival-like atmosphere of Dixieland bands, art dealers, family picnics, shade trees, cascading flowers and peppermint-striped awnings.

In the "back yard," the expansive park behind the grandstand, patrons who've hauled in coolers fill benches and picnic tables, sit in lawn chairs or recline on blankets. They watch the races and listen to Tom Durkin's call on TVs and speakers mounted in trees.

Many settle next to the paddock, where grooms and trainers walk and saddle eager, resplendent horses under towering maples and pines. Surprisingly, a large number of those looking on are children.

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