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Exploring Saratoga Springs, NY

Oberto Gili

Photo: Oberto Gili

The main post office in Saratoga Springs, New York, is decorated with murals in the 1930's style of Edward Hopper. They show jockeys, horses, women in cinched-waist suits, respectable folk strolling down Broadway. But the artist, Guy Pène duBois, has used a higher color than Hopper would have. That's as it should be. Like Saratoga itself, the paintings embody life as Jay Gatsby might have dreamed it—burning just a little too bright.

Artists have always come here; writers too (Yaddo, the artists' colony where John Cheever famously ran naked through the rooms, is right next to the racetrack). But you don't have to be a painter or a novelist to get hooked on the place. There is nowhere on earth like the Saratoga backstretch on a midsummer morning, with the mist rising and the horses going back and forth between the track and the stables for their daily workout. It is stunningly beautiful—the light green of the barns, the high-strung horses, the exercise riders in their chaps and jeans. Throw in a backdrop that includes the Adirondacks and 19th-century picturesque, and you've got a sure bet.

As the great sportswriter Joe H. Palmer said of this New York spa town, "A man who would change it would stir champagne." In late July, you can't help but agree with him. One week, you see balletomanes wandering down Broadway for their nightly Balanchine fix. The next, gamblers and horsemen start drifting into town, taking up residence in turreted Queen Annes and Gilded Age bungalows. Then come the guys from Brooklyn and the Bronx, who pack their coolers with cheese Danishes, saving their money for the horses.

Saratoga was long a source of anxiety for the upstate chamber-of-commerce types, even after the casinos were shut and the bootleggers became businessmen. Convinced that there was something unsavory about an Atlantic City without the Atlantic, a group of patricians looked to culture to spread a veneer of respectability over the spa's louche aspects. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (or SPAC, as it is universally called) was their brainchild. Various Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Phippses held a benefit ball to get it off the ground.

Paradoxically—or, perhaps, logically—the New York City Ballet's sojourn at SPAC is a more local affair than the Thoroughbred races. For the dancers, Saratoga is a summer place where they can relax a bit, and where, most important, the New York City press is not in evidence. The races, by contrast, culminate in late August in the Travers Stakes, the next step for the three-year-old stars after the prestigious Triple Crown. True, it was none other than Balanchine who brought ballet to the upper reaches of New York State, but as one Saratoga cabbie told then—principal dancer Shaun O'Brien, "This is a horse town—always was and always will be!" The "season" can, in fact, be divided in two. The audiences for July dancers and August horses remain fairly distinct: New Yorkers and New Englanders with dogs and baby carriages watching performances from the lawn; high rollers and old-money swells haunting the century-old tracks, sweating more or less visibly. At the upper echelons, however, there is some conspicuous overlap. It is not by accident that Saratoga is home to both the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame and the National Museum of Dance. The late Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (known as "Sonny") was one of the horsemen who founded the former, and his wife, Marylou, was the chief benefactor of the latter. Marylou, heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune, now reigns over both stage and track.

A major philanthropist for hospitals and museums and an indefatigable partygoer, Marylou (as everyone calls her) seems never to sleep or age. Her annual Whitney Ball, which typically supports the Museum of Dance, kicks off the social season for Thoroughbred racing, while her late-August stable party—for the people who actually run the racetrack, along with assorted horse owners, jockeys, and agents—helps bring it to a close. The gala is held in the old Canfield Casino in Congress Park. Now a museum celebrating Saratoga's scarlet past, the casino is a perfect stage for Marylou's estival fantasy. Themes have included "Gone with the Wind" and "Over the Rainbow" (with Marylou as Glinda, the good witch ).

SARATOGA USED TO BE A PLAYGROUND for powerful men; today, women rule. In addition to the ubiquitous, seventysomething Marylou, there is the wry and witty owner of Christiana Stables, Jane du Pont Lunger, who has been coming to Saratoga for nearly six decades. There is Kay Jeffords, whose family has donated many sporting paintings to the Museum of Racing, and who had a Chinese Chippendale gazebo moved from Philadelphia to the back yard of her North Broadway mansion. And there is Mollie Wilmot, of Palm Springs, who was heard to quip at a party, "My next husband hasn't been born yet."

The continual ftes throughout the month of August breed further "mop-up parties," until all invitations have been reciprocated. Field Horne, a former curator at the racing museum, noted, "It's great fun that you can invite to an intimate lunch thirty people from all over the East Coast." Must be. For the rest of us, there's the happy convergence of what New York City Ballet star Damian Woetzel calls "those two society things"—dancing and racing.

My own Saratoga summer began with a bang: Fourth of July fireworks over Congress Park. I took a room in the venerable Gideon Putnam Hotel, a stately brick affair just outside town, surrounded by miles of park and woodland and golf courses. The Gideon Putnam was built in the 1930's to accommodate well-heeled guests who were "taking the waters" at various nearby mineral springs in what is now the Saratoga Spa State Park.

I wandered along the park's allées, past the Victoria Pool, and slipped in the back entrance of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the open-air theater where the New York City Ballet was about to begin its summer season. Flanked by a waterfall and woods on one side and parkland on the other, SPAC has the feel of an enchanted forest. I sat down to watch the dress rehearsals for—what else?—Sleeping Beauty. A Danish dancer in the corps was sitting out the performance with an ankle injury. The girls, she told me, have to do so much more than the boys. "Ballet is woman," she said rather dramatically, quoting one of Balanchine's favorite pronouncements.

At the rococo bar of the slightly decadent Adelphi Hotel, ballet fans and dancers and their entourages come to gossip. With its Moorish columns and Victorian plushness, the hotel has the feel of old Saratoga; it's rumored to have been the haunt of the legendary 19th-century gambler John Morrissey, who built the track and casino. "Balanchine always compared dancers to Thoroughbreds," Peter Martins, the artistic director of the New York City Ballet, told me. "They can be beautifully equipped, but that's not what makes a good horse. It's desire. They have to want to win!" Darci Kistler, the last of Balanchine's handpicked ballerinas, put it even more bluntly: "When dancers complained to Mr. B. about not getting a role, he'd say, 'Why does that particular horse win the race?'" If only Mr. B. had been able to answer that.

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