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Exploring Saratoga Springs, NY

Oberto Gili

Photo: Oberto Gili

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.


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