Saratoga Springs, New York

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SARATOGA HAD BLOSSOMED fantastically. Here was the Gilded Age at its height: silk gowns, ostrich plumes, white tie and tails.

There is a house that for decades used to catch my eye when I drove to the track. Minarets, spires, turrets, towers, columned balconies, dormers, a dome—the “most spectacular (and conspicuous) house in the city,” remarks an architectural history. When I learned last summer that under the name of the Batcheller Mansion Inn it had been made a bed-and-breakfast, I called to ask shelter for the night. They had a room at a price, I ought to say, that would not be met by cashing a winning ticket on the longest long shot of the meeting. A good trifecta might cover it. But how regularly does one get to dwell, as once guests regularly did at Saratoga, in High Victorian Gothic of great glittering chandelier, massive carved door, marble mantelpiece, walnut mantelpiece, mahogany wainscoting, gilt mirror, soaring central hall, ample breakfast at a table set with impeccable china and silver on immaculate damask?

AUGUST AT SARATOGA, where you can stand ten feet away from the finest horses and best jockeys in the world.
 

Sitting on the covered porch—such are very common in the town; there is even a poster, “Saratoga Porches—I fell into conversation with a Southerner who told me he was up to see a filly of his run that afternoon. “She was short twice at six furlongs,” he drawled. “Now we’ve got six and a half, I think that’ll suit.”

“Really shooting this time, are you?”

“Believe she’ll be there.” I bet her, of course. She missed this much, despite my screaming. Closed like a shot. It was that damned number nine post position; she was wide around the turn, running on the outside of the perimeter.

Right across Union Avenue from the site of this setback to my finances, echoing a thousand similar failed transactions over the years, is the National Museum of Racing and Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. Here you can see a starting gate filled with full-sized replicas of horses and jockeys and hear a recording of the gates slamming open as the riders scream at their mounts, see saddles no larger than a good-sized steak that once adorned the backs of great horses, see boots with ballet-slipper-sized places for tiny hundred-pound-jockey feet, view hundreds of massively elaborate trophies, platters, loving cups, and urns, donated by the owners of winners of America’s greatest races. The Hall of Fame resembles nothing so much as a cathedral. Here are the pews facing a screen where racing films are shown. High above the walls are the relics of saints—the strikingly colored runners’ jackets of famous stables: Vanderbilt, Whitney, Greentree, Calumet Farm, the Queen of England. Set in the walls are chapels, side altars, where computer monitors in a moment call up great races and riders. You can study Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, see again Eddie Arcaro drive toward a finish, see Whirlaway, Forego, Buckpasser, Angel Cordero Jr., Willie Shoemaker.

The museum has a replica of the jocks’ room, ancient paintings from colonial days showing horses of attribute unlikely and running style impossible, legs stretched out like the footing of a rocking chair, old badges, tickets, insignia, posters, statuettes, stopwatches. There are recordings of jockeys and trainers discussing their craft. The museum each morning conducts walking tours of the backstretch area of numerous barns whose residents peer out at you, with other occupants being walked round and round after track workouts. Or you can watch from the clubhouse while being served breakfast, in a tradition that dates back more than a century. In the old days people fresh from gaming—men, actually, for women, along with local residents, were forbidden to gamble—used to come in the evening clothes required at Canfield’s Casino, where each August more money crossed the tables than Monte Carlo knew in a year, for frogs’ legs, melon, and champagne. “Whenever a gentleman failed to survive the combination,” the present-day menu claims, “the headwaiter would simply put a screen around him.” Today you can replicate everything save the frogs’ lees and possibly the screen.

SARATOGA AWOKE AGAIN after the Northway opened and the go-go 1980s brought a tax-loss explosion in the horse business.

If you take the walking tour, you may note what resembles our image of the slave quarters of the Old South. Here resides the backstretch help, physically close to but a world apart from their charges worth one hundred thousand, a million, thirty million—the price the brilliant Cigar’s owner turned down from Japanese interests. These workers muck out, feed, water, bandage, rub down, walk on a lead rope, and in some cases act as exercise boys (and in recent years, girls). Some eighteen years ago a New York City kid, Richard Migliore, was among them. His father in his own youth had been a good ballplayer, offered a chance to try out for a spot in the Boston Red Sox minor-league chain. But the father’s Italian father talked about pie in the sky and said if the boy went, he need not come home again. So when Richard, thirteen, said he wanted to go to work to be a jock, his own father, remembering, gave his consent.