Exploring Saratoga Springs, NY
Published: May 2009
By Christopher Benfey
Welcome to this lively upstate town where bookies and balletomanes mingle under the pines
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 ftes 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.
AS THE SUMMER SEASON OF THE BALLET drew to a close, I started visiting the racetrack in the mornings. "Once you get on the racetrack, you don't get off," a groom named Cliff said as he hosed down a handsome gray horse. Cliff trained horses for 20 years before he went broke and started rubbing them for veteran Saratoga trainer W. C. "Mike" Freeman. While Cliff led the gray back to the barn, Freeman nervously paced up and down the shedrow, checking on horses. "How does the season look for you?" I asked him. "Ask me again in four weeks," he said.
For the whole month of August, no one in Saratoga talks of anything but horses. "It's racing and horses, day and night," remarked Barry K. Schwartz, one of the hottest owners, and the latest chairman of the New York Racing Association. "It's like dying and going to heaven." Schwartz, smartly dressed in dark shirt and darker suit—he runs the Calvin Klein empire—was standing in the open-air paddock of the Saratoga Racetrack. It's one of the prettiest sites in America, the sort of protected greensward that Frederick Law Olmsted would have been proud of. A couple of fenced-in acres of grass, a dozen trees with numbers pinned on them (where horses will circle and be saddled before each race), some stalls for horses too shy for the trees—the paddock is where beautiful people inspect beautiful animals. A path at one end leads to the barns across Union Avenue, a path at the other to the racetrack. Only horsemen and their associates—owners, trainers, grooms, jockeys—are allowed in here; the crowd looks on from behind the rail fence. This is where the jockeys get their final instructions: "Hold her back till the last quarter-pole"; "Stay off the pace unless it's really slow." Patches of vivid color complete the picture: the jockeys' polychrome silks, the chic dresses and flamboyant hats of fashionable owners.
The jockeys move easily between the high-society world of the paddock and the iron logic of the racetrack. "For a jockey, it doesn't get much better than this," Jerry Bailey told me. Smart and preternaturally skilled, Bailey is at the top of his game; he's one of the best riders in the world right now. We talked about the social scene at Saratoga, where a jockey like Bailey can play tennis with owners in the morning, ride nine races in the afternoon, and attend a party at night. Though the jockeys would never share their knowledge with one another, Bailey was happy to answer my questions. I asked him about injuries. "On my first mount on my very first day at Saratoga," he said, "I was riding Will of Iron for Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stables. The horse stumbled in the starting gate and I broke my collarbone."
Saratoga is fabled for upsets, and Bailey's experience is par for the course. Here the great Man o' War first lost a race—and never lost again. Here Secretariat, having waltzed through the Triple Crown, went down to Onion in the Travers. You can bone up on such lore in the encyclopedic Museum of Racing, across Union Avenue from the track, or you can ask Kentucky-based Stanley D. Petter Jr., an agent for people who buy and sell horses (bloodstock, his business card reads). A shrewd man, always impeccably dressed, Petter will carry on a conversation about, say, the stallion preferences of Japanese breeders even as he is casting a cold eye on a procession of horses in the paddock. I expressed admiration for a handsome gray, and Petter said, under his breath, "Yes, but there's something wrong with him." The "something wrong" turned out to be the horse's great-great-grandfather, who had a tendency to give up in the stretch. Determined not to be influenced by such nonsense, I bet on the horse anyway. Sure enough, he gave up in the stretch.
OPINIONS DIFFER ON WHETHER ANYONE can really make money consistently at the track. Gamblers love Saratoga, though, and not just for the cool nights and sparkling skies. As Tony Cobitz, a bloodstock agent, consultant, and highly respected handicapper, explained to me, the pools at Saratoga are large and "the competitive quality of the races is unmatched in North America." The large pools mean that big individual bets don't significantly lower the odds, as they can in smaller pools, where you end up essentially betting against yourself. And the high quality of the races, with horses shipped in from all over the world, "makes the puzzle of handicapping," Cobitz said with a sly smile, "all the more delicious." Some of the really serious gamblers stay far away from the track these days—in Las Vegas, for example—but, according to Cobitz, that's a mistake. "I have to see the horses," he says. "This is my edge as a gambler. If a horse makes a negative impression in the paddock, I won't bet on him."
The biggest gamblers may well be the owners, who will spend upwards of $1 million for an unraced yearling, based only on its bloodline and conformation. One of my favorite Saratoga rituals is the annual yearling sales, held in a packed circular pavilion during the first week of racing. The best-bred horses in America are led out onto a platform, and the auctioneer begins his patter, accepting bids from some very wealthy people—the Farishes, the Phippses, and others of the Saratoga elite. The horses may turn out to be champions, or they may turn out to be duds. A Seattle Slew colt went for $4 million and change last year. Maybe you'll see him next spring at the Kentucky Derby; maybe you won't.
"Your winners are few and far between," says New York City owner Caesar Kimmel, "so you have to put a little fun in the game." For Kimmel, there is a special pleasure in naming his horses. He may be the current champion (or current rascal, depending on whom you ask) in this complicated art, in which names often allude somehow to the horse's breeding. I stopped by his Clubhouse box above the finish line to compliment him on the win of Peony's Envy. The double entendre hadn't dawned on most of the spectators until the announcer shouted the horse's name as she came barreling down the homestretch to victory. Kimmel delights in trying to slip innocuous-sounding names by the fusty Jockey Club (sometimes he succeeds), which vigorously quashes any it deems salacious. "Socktuckers" was rejected even after Kimmel explained that rotund French kings, unable to reach the bottom of their knickers, employed men to tuck in their socks.
Late in August there's a fancy race—fillies only—called the Ballerina Stakes, in honor of the founding of SPAC. Just for the hell of it, I bet on Caesar Kimmel's long-shot filly, Erin Moor ("nothing dirty in that name," his wife assured me). Erin Moor was a pretty horse, but she was hopelessly outclassed (George Steinbrenner III's Dream Supreme won), and I added her name to my long string of losers and near misses. It was a beautiful afternoon, nonetheless. Some Canada geese had settled on the pond in the center of the track; the ceiling fans in the Clubhouse were revolving slowly; and I was dozing off in the late-summer sunshine. A man who would change this would stir champagne.
Acres of parks and woodland on one side of town, an elegant racetrack with a splendid Victorian grandstand on the other. On a summer day in Saratoga Springs, you might be forgiven for thinking that, with the exception of ladies' hats, little has changed in this 19th-century spa town 30 miles north of Albany.
Adelphi Hotel 365 Broadway; 518/587-4688, fax 518/587-0851; doubles from $110. A time capsule of Gilded Age decadence and Victorian clutter. The bar is the place to gather after ballet performances. Open May 18—October 20.
Gideon Putnam Hotel 24 Gideon Putnam Rd., Saratoga Spa State Park; 800/732-1560 or 518/584-3000, fax 518/584- 1354; doubles from $99. The 120-room grande dame of Saratoga hotels.
Chez Sophie Bistro 2853 Rte. 9, Malta Ridge; 518/583-3538; dinner for two $80. Housed in a stainless-steel diner. Wonderful fish and veal dishes cooked by French-born Sophie Parker
Sperry's 301/2 Caroline St.; 518/584-9618; dinner for two $80. Popular with trainers and other horse people.
Chianti il Ristorante 208 S. Broadway; 518/580-0025; dinner for two $100. This charming northern Italian restaurant near the turnoff to the harness track is a Saratoga favorite.
Graham's Restaurant & Bar 63 Putnam St.; 518/580-0500; dinner for two $80. Frequented by New York chefs such as Bobby Flay and Danny Meyer.
Mrs. London's 464 Broadway; 518/581-1834. Old-world bakery and café. Mrs. London's husband, Michael, knows all the local gossip—old and new..
National Museum of Dance 99 S. Broadway; 518/584-2225. Housed in a 1918 Arts and Crafts—style building that used to be part of the public baths complex, this museum has changing exhibitions and permanent Hall of Fame installations.
National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame 191 Union Ave.; 518/584-0400. Offers a freshman course in a sometimes mysterious sport. A new wing includes a "heroes" room, with souvenirs of great races and racing personalities.
The season runs from July 10 to 28. For tickets to New York City Ballet performances in Saratoga, log on to www.spac.org, or, after May 13, call 518/587-3330.
Held every day but Tuesday from July 25 to September 3. The first major contest of the season is the Whitney, followed by the fillies-only Alabama. The most important race, the Travers, takes place the last weekend in August. For dates, check www.nyra.com/saratoga or, after July 25, call 518/584-6200.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Lincoln Mineral Baths S. Broadway, at the entrance to Saratoga Spa State Park; 518/583-2880. Don't leave town without a spa treatment at the baths, a no-frills operation in a 1930's building that resembles an English country manor.