A small town. A three hour drive from New York City. 150 miles from the coast. Forty minutes from Albany.
This is where you find a large part of American East Coast society in the summer.
The reason is spelled horse racing–as it has been for the last 150 years. Gallop Magazine visited Saratoga in August.
And came home with a love affair.
It all starts about an hour’s drive from the Newark Airport in New Jersey. The industrial estates are gone, as are the rusty old metal bridges. The feeling is no longer that of the kind of neighbourhood where bodies are found in Law & Order. All is green. The highway lined by well mowed grass. Traffic flows at 65 mph and nobody is in a rush. No supermarkets or used car dealerships block the sight of park-like forests. It’s all neat and tidy in a way that for this European visitor feels more like Switzerland than America.
”I hear you went up to Saratoga. And your horse naturally won.”
Carly Simon, “You’re so vain
The famous Catskill Mountains appear. The 1950s’ and 60s’ main waterhole for the east coast urban middle class (Remember Dirty Dancing? That was here). But we’re going further. We’re going past the middle class.
We’re going to Saratoga.
3,000 race horses. 25,000 people. A number of medicinal springs. And many, many millions of dollars.
THE YEAR IS 1767. The United States does not exist yet. British soldier William Johnson is wounded in battle, and friends from the local Mohawk tribe take him to a nearby spring with water that is said to have healing powers. Johnson survives, and the rumour about the water spreads.
Settlers come to the area, and in a few decades Saratoga Springs has become a place where the wealthy go drink the life-giving water. The railroad comes to town and brings even more visitors. With them come, the need for entertainment. Hotels and restaurants are followed by casinos and—in 1863—the race course that was to give the small town global fame opened its doors.
Present day. The air is hot and humid. It’s been a hot summer in northern U.S. Fasig Tipton’s Select Yearling Sale has just started in Saratoga. About a hundred thoroughbred yearlings are about to be sold during the two night sale. The sales pavillion looks like an elegant lecture hall. It is air conditioned, has comfortable arm chairs, and there is an art exhibition above top row. Outside, well-manicured stables, are literally in the middle of an upscale residential area. Buyers and sellers hustle with people who have just passed by to enjoy the sight of big bucks changing owners. The local beer from Saratoga Brewery gives comfort in the heat of the night. Ladies with Hermès bags eat oysters at one of the food stalls, while tourists and grooms have $6 homemade burgers at another.
The eight big black SUV’s on the lawn outside indicate that Sheikh Mohammed from Dubai is in place.
Spotters with dinner jackets and headsets oversee the bidding even outside the sales pavillion.
“It’s slow tonight,” says Marion Altiere, a horse racing writer who calls Saratoga home.
She refers to the fact that no horses have been sold for headline making amounts. A few hundred thousand dollars average, but then two horses break the million dollar barrier.
A wave of excitement goes through the crowd. The people of Saratoga feel that there is still money in the sport and that their little town can continue to be the playground for the rich and famous.
“Stock analysts should come here,” says Don Butte, the CFO of Fasig Tipton.
“Prices at the sales show what people with money really think about the future.”
YOU DON’T REALLY need a car in Saratoga. This is one of the few places in the promised land of cars where this is true. If you’re going to the races or the sales. walking or using a bicycle is the way to go. Parking is expensive, and you might find yourself far from where you want to go.
Nothing in Saratoga is further away than a 10-minute bike ride. Besides, the bike makes you experience the beauty of Saratoga up close.
Like most other American towns Saratoga has a main street. In Saratoga it’s called Broadway, and in the outskirts of town it’s lined by hotels and fast food places. Many of them have names and signs that speak directly to the racing fans, like Thorobred Motel or the Turf and Spa.
After less than half a mile on Broadway you are in the centre. Classic 19th century brick buildings standing side-by-side by wide sidewalks lined with trees. There is no shortage of cafés, restaurants and shops. You almost expect to run into ladies in crinoline dresses waving fans. In the alleys you find the cool, arty bars where Dylan and Arlo Guthrie played in the ’60s.
A few blocks away are the wooden houses. On the east side they’re humble in design. This is where the servants lived, the workers lived. In the last few years many of these houses have been bought and restored by young creative people taking advantage of the credit crunch.
On the west side you find the mansions. Here are the narrow streets with names like ”Madison Avenue” and wooden houses that never cease to amaze. They are miniature castles surrounded by tall pine trees. Shaded front porches with antique rocking chairs are where people read race cards and drink lemonade. Many of the houses are rented out the entire summer, and few places should be as happy as Saratoga for the invention of broad band internet.
“We used to rent a house here all summer, but I still had to go to New York and work in the weeks,” says a man in chinos and polo shirt we met at the sale. “I commuted and my wife and kids were here. Now I do most of my work on-line and just go down every once in awhile. Most people try to leave Manhattan in the summer anyway.”
Chinos (or shorts), polo shirts and running shoes are all part of the Saratoga uniform. Oil skin coats are far away and suits are few. And even if cars and handbags indicate that financial muscle is present, Saratoga never feels snobbish or upper-class.
You can eat at decent prices on Broadway and spend an afternoon people-watching. Even the best restaurants have burgers for $8 or $9, and nobody will stare at you if you have a Coca-Cola with your Kobe beef.
SOME COMPARE Saratoga to St. Moritz in Switzerland: a small town that attracts money, society and and parties because of a sport. But here it is horses instead of winter sports, and there are plenty of horses. Three thousand horses do not go unnoticed. And the people of Saratoga love their horses.
“In the old days the horses would come by train,” says Altieri. “Then they where ridden from the railroad station to the track, and some of them always got loose. Catching those loose horses was a bit of fun for the locals, and nobody got upset if they ended up having hoof prints on their lawn. It could be those of a future Travers Stakes winner.”
Travers Stakes IS the biggest race in Saratoga. It is a 1 1/4 mile dirt track race for 3-year-olds that is often refered to as the Midsummer Derby. Several breeding giants can be found among the list of Travers winners: Birdstone, Point Given, Forty Niner, Native Dancer, Man o’War, Alydar. The winner of Travers does not only receive honour and money, the owner also gets to have his colors painted on the canoe in the infield pond!
The race that is run in late August and marks the crescendo of the season. An attendance of 60,000 people in a town with 25,000 inhabitants is nothing short of impressive.
“People start to line up at 3 a.m to get the best seats at Travers,” says Molly Brinde of New York Racing Association. NYRA owns and operates the three major tracks in the state of New York: Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.
Getting to the best places at Saratoga is not about getting the best seats on the long grandstand, but rather about getting the best picnic tables in the park in the track’s ”backyard.”
“We get to see the horses up close in the parade ring here,” says a father. “We get to eat our own food while the kids run around and play. We see the races just as good here since there are plenty of big screen TVs everywhere.”
The trick is to put the family’s best and quickest runner at the front of the line and to know exactly which tables to aim for. As the gates open the family runner goes at full speed and jumps over any obstacles to get the right table.
SARATOGA IS A CLASSIC race course, often portrayed in movies and books. It is a bit worn–in a charming way–with the red and white colour scheme on everything from tents to signs. Old school would be the word used today. This is a place where legends have run: Man o’War, Native Dancer, Secretariat, Rachel Alexandra. Seabiscuit was bought on sale here.
The grandstand is open and stretches for more than a furlong, but in spite of this there is a feeling of being close to the action. At the finish linen, the best seats are only some 30 feet from the track. There is hardly room for a winner’s enclosure…
Water hoses hang along the outer rail, facing the audience. As soon as the jockey has taken off the saddle the horses are showered—so close to the crowd that a horse that shakes off the water, sprays a shower on the closest bystanders.
Inside the dirt track is the outer turf track, and inside of that the next turf track.
“Americans love time keeping,” says Norwegian tipster and handicapper Geir Stabell, who is based in England but spends a lot of time in the USA. ”Railing out a turf track (moving the inner rail out in order to reduce tear on the inner parts) as in Europe wouldn’t work here, as it changes the circumference and then times are incomparable. Instead they have two different turf tracks so the betters know how to compare and with what.”
Another big difference to Europe is that races can get moved to the dirt track in case of a lot of rain. You will even find horses that are declared with a reservation—they will only run if the race is shifted to dirt. It is rare a graded stakes is moved though.
Saratoga is also one of few major tracks in the USA with jump racing. Every Thursday a steeplechase is run over national fences—a kind of large, movable hurdles. Prize money is good—often up to $60,000—and there is rarely more than 10 runnes in a race. One wonders why so few Europeans try their luck here.
SO MUCH IN Saratoga is about the season, or as Americans call it, the meet. In Europe the term “meeting” is often used to describe one or a few days of racing on a certain race course. In the USA, it is different. Each race course has one or more meets that last for weeks or months at a time. During those, there is often racing five or six days a week at that track.
When a track holds its meet trainers rent stables and move horses and staff to it. Stable rent is often free, or almost free, for horses that are there to race, and that way stables are filled with horses that can fill the races.
In New York, Belmont has a 56-day meet in spring/summer and a 37-day meet in autumn, while Aqueduct has 79 days from New Year’s Eve, and Saratoga has 40 days in the summer.
“I think we’ll have about 3,000 horses here this summer,” says Brinde. “It’s a bit like summer camp for New York racing.Most horses have Belmont in New York City as their regular home, but we also have trainers who keep their horses in Florida for the winter. Some also stay here all year, and then we have trucks that drive them to Belmont for the races.”
The summer camp metaphor becomes understandable when you visit the stable area—The backside—in early morning. An atmosphere that—for lack of a better word—could best be described as cozy. Even though people and horses work hard, it all has a feeling of vacation. Horses look at each other from open stall doors. The green wooden buildings are scattered around in a pine forest with trees everywhere giving natural shade. There is a feeling of the whole setup being smaller than it actually is.
Track ponies stand tied, saddled and ready for their next assignment. All of it has an old school charm to it, with trainers sporting hand painted signs with their names on the barns, and flowers in the stable colors in flower pots. The male dominance seams less here, and close to half of the exercise riders are female.
The Saratoga morning mist is legendary, and sunrise workouts look as amazing in real life as in pictures. The street outside the backside entrance is guarded by two men with stop signs and refelective vests. All traffic is stopped when horses are about to cross the street. The entrance is guarded by another two, three guards will make sure you have your access-card in order. Once inside you have almost as many people lining the rail here as you have on the grand stand on a normal race day in France or South Africa. Picnic tables and a place where you can get burgers, race card, burritos and pens. Famous jockeys drive around in golf carts, as it’s far from the backside to the jock’s room.
WALKING THROUGH the stable area you come to a fence with an open gate. A sign saying ”Private Property” is all that informs you of the fact that whoever passes through the gate enters Sheikh Mohammed’s facility. It features green grass, white wooden houses and stables of a kind that would have made them perfect for a fashion shoot. There is also a training course where the furlong markers are classic Saratoga style red and white.
As opposed to the other racing centres of the world —Newmarket, Chantilly, Lexington—the big players are not here under their own name. There is no Coolmore or Juddmonte and no Aga Kahn stud farm—yet. So far Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin are the only global owners with their own place.
But New York is coming—big time. Breeders incentives and major prize money has been set up to attract the big-time players. Money comes from things like the newly renovated Aqueduct track where NYRA operates New York’s first casino, or racino as it is called. One million visitors spent $1 billion there in July 2012. The profit is used to promote racing, and purses of $60,000 in maiden races are common in Saratoga.’
It’s been about 150 years since the opening of Saratoga Race Course.
If you haven’t been here—go! And if you don’t make it for the celebrations, odds are you will have at least another 150 summer chances coming up.
Read our other stories about Saratoga:
TO MOST EUROPEANS Kentucky is the birthplace of American racing. But the fact is that it all started in New York.
In the early 1600s, Charles II–“the racing King” who founded Newmarket–gave instructions to the governor of New York to establish a race course on Long Island, only a few miles from where Belmont Park is today.
Tha race course was given the name Newmarket and held its first races in 1655, more than 100 years before the creation of the United States. In 1821 gambling was legalized in the New York burrough of Queens, and a race track by the name of Union Course was founded. This was the first track to have what is today known as a dirt surface, but at that time it was called “skinned.” The term refered to the fact that the grass layer had been skinned off. Some say this was in order to obtain higher speeds, and others claim it was because it was hard to maintain a good turf track in the dry American climate. The track was a one mile (1600 meter) oval and it became a template for other tracks all across the continent. At this period of time, each race normally consisted of four races of four miles each—meaning a race horse had to run 16 miles in one day! The oval track was perfect for this, as opposed to the often straight tracks in England.
The best known race of the era was held on May 27, 1823.
American Eclipse, a son of legendary sire Eclipse, was to race the Southern hope Sir Henry in three heats of four miles each. Prize money was a staggering $20,000, and people traveled from the entire East Coast to see the race.
American Eclipse was six years older than Sir Henry and had retired to breeding, so the odds wer in Sir Henry’s favour. When Sir Henry won the first heat in a record 7:32,5 it created a panic on the New York stock markets! But American Eclipse fought back and won the remaining two heats. The local newspaper The Neighborhoods of Queens reported that “he saved the stock market from collapse, but led several Southerners, who had bet their entire plantations on Sir Henry, to commit suicide on the spot.”
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