Saratoga Springs, New York

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The town was seedy and petty, any trappings were of tinsel, and the successors of the carriage trade that had once gone to see the ponies run came out now in shorts and halter tops. All Saratoga had going was Skidmore College —its women were housed and taught in former private residences along Union Avenue—and Yaddo, the retreat for artists, writers, and composers set up by a philanthropic couple in an 1893 mansion. The likes of Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, John Cheever, Aaron Copland, and Carson McCullers labored there, food and lodging free. The gardens were open to the public, and still are.

Then slumbering Saratoga awoke. The Adirondacks Northway was opened in 1965, allowing cars to shoot to the outskirts of town at sixty-five miles an hour. Then came the go-go 1980s, with such a tax-loss explosion in the horse business that yearlings that never had a saddle on their backs went for unheard-of prices at the annual Fasig-Tipton auctions right outside the track—one for $4.6 million, and it turned out he couldn’t run, for God’s sake. The bubble broke after the stock market drop of 1987. Not so long after that, if you walked around the stable area where the wares were housed and you looked interested, you might have been asked by an eager seller if you’d like to inspect his product. Maybe you could have picked up another Man o’ War. He went for five thousand dollars here in 1918.

The final reason that Saratoga today is so reminiscent of what our great-great-grandparents saw, or some of them at any rate, is the preservation movement. For years Victoriana was out and plastic in; and so the Adelphi sat unoccupied from 1970 to 1979, the furniture gathering dust. Then people got involved with the past, and places were fixed up, and Richard Migliore and others fell in love with Saratoga. It is awfully pretty these days, very clean, lots of places to eat. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) presents events of all types in its huge amphitheater. The New York City Ballet is a resident company during the summer. The Newport Jazz Festival-Saratoga and the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival take place. If you want, bring a blanket and sit on the lawn outside the no-walls building. Nearby is the National Museum of Dance and summer schools for orchestral studies, whose classes you may observe. Recent performers at SPAC include Itzhak Perlman, Michael Bolton, k. d. lang, the Beaux Arts Trio, Hootie & the Blowfish, Frederica von Stade, and Crosby, Stills & Nash with Chicago.

I close as I began, on a personal note. I had a pal, Gerry. We went back to the first day of high school, when I borrowed a pen from him. In time I moved to upstate New York, and in time Gerry bought a little hideaway cabin in the area. We used to go to the track a lot. Gerry died. Cancer. Not long after, I was up at the track with another friend, Jan. There was a race for very young, beginning horses. We debated the merits of two entries. We couldn’t decide which to bet. “I wonder if I ought to ask Gerry,” I said, looking skyward. Jan said it was a bad idea. We could not be sure, he pointed out, about concepts of humor in the afterlife. “Maybe for laughs the son of a bitch’ll give you the wrong horse,” Jan said. So we went off one of our choices, which of course won: Easy Goer, one of the top horses of the last couple of decades.

It was impossible that Gerry would not be paying close attention to August occurrences at the Spa, as sportswriters label Saratoga’s track. So it will be when, not too long hence, I join him—assuming all goes well. If you go there, maybe I’ll be seeing you.

THE TURNING POINT TO PLAN A TRIP