You can do more in Saratoga than just horse around.
Even without all the spectacle, Saratoga Springs is rife with things to do, particularly in summer. For a town of 26,000 permanent residents, it has a disproportionate number of fine restaurants and interesting diversions -- thanks to racing season.
Saratogians are friendly, easygoing people, even to the tourists who clog their streets and toss out garbage (and money, don't forget). They seem to enjoy taking time to point you to a nice restaurant or give you a tip on nighttime entertainment.
You can take a driving tour with Saratoga Circuit. Or stop in at the Urban Park Cultural Center, get a map, and do it on your own.
One of my favorite places in Saratoga is celebrating its centennial this year. Yaddo is a peaceful estate set up as an artists' community by Spencer and Katrina Trask, apparently sweet people who had many tragedies in their lives. (The estate's name comes from the way one of the Trask children used to pronounce "Shadow," the name of the little house the family originally resided in. All four of the Trask children died young.)
Within the walls of the big stone mansion Truman Capote wrote "Other Voices, Other Rooms," Flannery O'Conner wrote "Wise Blood" and Philip Roth wrote "Portnoy's Complaint." Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were guests when they were virtual unknowns.
Visitors are allowed only onto the beautiful grounds, which include statues, a rose garden (where the Trasks are buried), and a rock garden with a little geyser. You may see one of the artists in residence, but even if you don't, it's fun to gaze at the big house's lighted windows and wonder what great work may be in progress.
Yaddo is down the road from the historic racetrack. But you can also visit the original track, Horse Haven, abandoned after its debut season. Horse Haven is the site of the Fasig-Tipton auction, possibly the biggest gambling stakes in town.
One long weekend in August, the high rollers from all over the world come to Horse Haven to size up the yearlings. Then these daring citizens (whose collective wealth is said to exceed the gross national product of many nations) place six- or seven-digit bids on horses that may not have touched a racetrack yet.
The other must in Saratoga is to sample the waters. Each spring has its own medicinal character and its own particular taste, ranging from bearable to absolutely hideous. There are popular fountains in and around Congress Park, where you'll also find the statues of Spit and Spat spitting at each other.
You might also take a dip in the baths. Saratoga waters are supposed to be as good externally as they are internally. All the locals recommended I go for a dip and get a massage: These treatments are in great demand, and reservations are necessary in summer.
Of the great bathhouses, the Roosevelt, in the Saratoga Spa State Park, is the only one left that operates all year. (The Lincoln Baths are open in the summer only.) The Roosevelt's Georgian building is striking, with lots of marble and columns. Crystal Spa, across from Spa State Park, is much less historic, but has become very upscale, offering mineral baths and massages.
Museums and more
Of the museums in town, racing fans will probably want to visit the National Museum of Racing, across from the racetrack. The museum has a collection of racing silks and trophies, and such relics as the auctioneer's gavel that fell to seal the sale of Man O' War.
For my money, however, I'd choose the National Museum of Dance, a compact, interesting repository of artifacts, videos, photographs, and temporary exhibits on American dance.
The museum is part of Saratoga Spa State Park, south of the city on Routes 9 and 50. The park has numerous attractions, the most significant being the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It opened as part of the city's rejuvenation plan in 1966.
The arts center is the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet, which perform in a beautiful, 5,100-seat amphitheater. In the Little Theater are experimental productions of theater, music and dance.
Also in the park are fields of rolling grass and towering pine trees, the Victoria pool, several mineral springs, picnic spots, a geyser, and the Gideon Putnam Hotel. The hotel is elegant and a must for Sunday brunch. The food is wonderful, the ambience quiet and lush; it was one of my favorite experiences in Saratoga.