In this strangest of years, as I tuned in to watch a Kentucky Derby run on the first Saturday in September and the closing weekend of racing at Saratoga – all eerily without fans – the spectacle, nonetheless, brought back so much nostalgia for annual summer visits to Saratoga Springs, New York. The week-long jaunt had been a fixture on my husband's and my calendar for all the years we lived in metropolitan New York and even after his death, when I lived in Maine, I managed to steal away from my theatre work for three glorious trips in the company of a close friend and my Newfoundland Ruffian. The stories are too numerous to be recounted fully here. Suffice it to say, Saratoga is one of my happy places – somewhere where I can escape and relax totally while enjoying all the natural beauty, culture, dining and distractions, and - yes
– the horses!
The tiny hamlet tucked away 164 miles north of New York City, nestled in the Adirondacks along the Hudson – so much less mighty that far north – is one of those gems of a small town. Year-round it boasts an elegant main street, inviting shops, gourmet restaurants, a plethora of architectural masterpieces, prestigious art and dance museums, an opera company, a huge performing arts center, two excellent colleges, the gorgeous Congress Park and Yaddo Gardens, therapeutic hot springs, and even a lake and boating. But it is the horses which are the heart and soul of this town, most especially in the six weeks of summer when the New York Racing Authority holds its annual meet and the horses, the horsemen, the gamblers, the well-heeled and average families who flock to "The Spa" to mingle and celebrate.
Perhaps the secret of Saratoga is that each visit seems to hold the comfortable prospect of the familiar, as well as the potential for surprises. These are just a few of the reminiscences that flood my memory.
When my husband Greg and I visited, we stayed at the Holiday Inn; situated just at the top of Congress Park , the base of Broadway and the foot of Union Street, it is the perfect centrally located spot. When I came in recent years from Maine with Lisa, we took a house to accommodate the dog, located just past Yaddo off Union Avenue, it afforded another prospect on the town – idyllic, yet seconds from everything.
Usually, after arrival, our first outing would be to walk downtown Broadway – to check out the shops, see what was new, and without fail – to make the obligatory stop at the milliners – Hatsational or Saratoga Trunk. Though I generally arrived with at least four full hatboxes, each year I departed with five! There is nothing like the excitement – or the frivolity – of trying on one exotic concoction after another and coming away with something eye-catching for the first visit to the track. Darting in and out of other favorite shops like Impressions of Saratoga and the incomparable rare books store, Lyrical Ballads, complete the first foray. At the latter one visit is never enough – the treasures have to be sought out carefully. On my last visit I came away with a first edition of the N.C. Wyeth illustrated Treasure Island as a gift for dear friends who were about to premiere their
musical version of the novel.
The first evening is town is always reserved for one of my favorite dining spots, Wheatfields, where the interior conjures up Victorian elegance and the outdoor tables allow you an eye on all of passing society. Other favorite dining places are Caroline's with their New Orleans cuisine and first-rate jazz, Limoncello for a lovely Italian meal, and Leon's (now called Mi Casa), a Mexican cantina owned by a former jockey. Late night drinks at the beautifully restored at the Gideon Putnam, overlooking the magnificent golf course are a must.
A visit to the State Park which surrounds the Gideon Putnam in daytime is also a pleasure. One motors down the Avenue of Pines with its stately trees framing the entrance to what were once the baths and hot springs which gave Saratoga its fame. One can stop and sample waters from these springs along the way - most rather sulphurous – and enjoy the neo-classical buildings which housed these 19 century spas. Within the park one also finds the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a huge Tanglewood-style outdoor arena used for summer concerts of classical music and ballet, as well as more popular artists, and the smaller indoor theatre used for chamber music concerts. During July and August SPAC has long been the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet. The Museum of Dance, also on the grounds, has grown exponentially over the
years, and now houses first-class exhibitions about the world of classical, modern, and musical theatre dance.
To further enjoy the museum experience, Saratoga boasts two other important institutions: Skidmore College's Tang Museum of Art and the National Museum of Racing and the Racing Hall of Fame. Both of these require considerable time to do justice to the collections. The Racing Museum is unique in the country, housing not only a comprehensive permanent exhibition that chronicles the history of the sport, but also a large collection of racing art and artifacts, as well as multi-media and video archives of historical import. Each year the museum also mounts two special exhibitions honoring important moments and people in the sport. The Racing Hall of Fame provides a quiet place to view the plaques of the inductees who have been honored for their contributions to the "sport of kings." The museum also offers guided walking tours of the Oklahoma Training Track that allow visitors to see the equine athletes up close in
their morning workouts and to get a glimpse into the barns of the trainers who make Saratoga their summer home.
Always a fan of walking tours, I have enjoyed this one and the many others Saratoga has to offer. There are guided tours of Congress Park, of the historic Canfield Casino, and numerous self-guided walking tours of the city's various districts. Perhaps my favorite is the walk on Upper Broadway past the countless mansions of Saratoga's elite- homes by architects like S. Gifford Slocum and Henry Hobson Richardson in every style from Gothic Revival to Neo-Classical to Victorian splendor that dazzle the imagination. Other trails include a stroll down Union Avenue, beginning with the Battcheller's Mansion at the foot of the street near Congress Park, and a visit to the grounds of Yaddo Mansion – now an artists' retreat with stunning formal gardens, or a jaunt through the arts district.
But perhaps the most storied spot for walking is the impeccably manicured Congress Park which housed several of the downtown springs and was a favorite 19th century destination for strolls and carriage rides. Not only does the park boast lovely formal plantings and ponds well stocked with ducks and geese, but it is home to a number of impressive sculptures, among them The Spirit of Life by Daniel Chester French with its wings spread wide over a reflecting pool and the mirror images of two Tritons, which adorn the Italian Gardens. The centerpiece of the park is the Canfield Casino, which served as a gambling, drinking, establishment in the 19th century (as well as likely housing a secret brothel on the third floor). The red brick edifice guarded by stone dogs at each of its entrances features a lavish ballroom, gentleman's bar, stained glass windows, and
luxurious Victorian décor. Owned at one time by John Morrissey, Tammany Hall Boss, legend has it that on days when gambling – which was at times prohibited in New York– was to take place, the color of the flag outside the mansion changed, to alert club members. Today it serves as the headquarters of the History Museum and a wedding venue. Another nostalgic fixture of Congress Park is the famed turn-of-the-century Carousel with twenty-eight individually carved wooden horses by Marcus Charles Illions. Rescued from being demolished, the carousel was moved from Saratoga Lake to Congress Park and reopened in 2000, delighting as many children riders, as adults.
Not only is Congress Park my first destination early every morning for a walk, but in the two seasons in which I brought my Newfoundland Ruffian, it was her favorite spot as well. I have pictures of her posing with her own pink fascinator hat alongside the regal canine stone guardians at the Casino. I have the sore arms to witness how she pulled and tugged to chase the ducks across the lawn and into the pond. But my fondest memory is of a walk one hot August morning. Just as I thought we had successfully averted all the pitfalls that might distract a precocious Newf, to my astonishment, Ruffian bolted into one of the fountains near the casino and despite my admonitions to get out proceeded to run around the circular basin splashing ecstatically and ignoring me completely. No sooner did I manage to extract her from the fountain and pause to catch my breath than with
what only can be described as a canine smile, she jumped right back in and repeated her antics. This time it took two of us to get her out and haul her to the car. Lisa had managed to capture the whole thing on video, while I was mortified that the gardener working nearby might have seen the episode. Ruffian seemed very pleased with herself, and for the remainder of that vacation we avoided the park's fountains.
No visit to Saratoga, however, would be complete without the horses. For a city girl like myself who only dreamed of owning a horse and feasted on stories like Black Beauty as a girl, my fascination with thoroughbreds seems some kind of mythical extension of these childhood fantasies. I love to watch the poetry in motion of these thousand-pound equine athletes who seem to glide on the wind. And I immersed myself in the history and legends of the sport from an early age. For someone who follows no other sports, this is a passion I can only partly explain. Yet, it has been with me since childhood, and when, as an adult, I was able to go to the racetrack – Monmouth in New Jersey– for the first time, I was also bitten with the thrill of the game. I do wager – not a lot of money– but doing my handicapping homework is part of the fun for me!
At Saratoga, we would always begin our visit with an afternoon of polo – and once again that rather complex and fast paced game which may seem mysterious to some, makes perfect sense to me. A sunny August day at the beautiful Saratoga Polo Grounds, watching the ponies speed nimbly back and forth to polite applause – gentlemen in blue blazers and ladies in colorful summer frocks with big hats, delicious appetizers and martinis in hand - always has seemed the perfect start to a Saratoga week.
And then there is the ritual of the racetrack. Mornings in the grandstand enjoying a sumptuous buffet breakfast and watching the horses work. Then afternoons, dressed to the nines, luncheon in the Turf Club with a bottle of chardonnay on ice and the racing form in hand. After the first few races, I like to take my Clubhouse seats and watch from a different perspective among different fans, and between races I hurry to the paddock for a close-up view of the horses, owners, and jockeys, perhaps pausing at the betting window on the way back to my seat. I remember an amusing occurrence one summer, when my husband, who was a financial manager for the Salvation Army, received a call during a race from his boss. There was no way to muffle the racing call or disguise where he was, and since the Army disapproves of gambling, Greg felt obliged to offer the lame
excuse, "We're in Saratoga, Major. My wife likes to WATCH the horses." And surely I was not going to deny that nor was I going to apologize!
There is something so liberating about a Saratoga holiday. Perhaps for me, in addition to all the attractions described, it is the opportunity for me to escape entirely from my normal routine – to be in a place where relaxation and enjoyment are headily pursued, and where it seems quite normal to indulge oneself. But while many of Saratoga's pleasures may be deemed elitist, there is also something surprisingly democratic about the city. The racecourse is one of the most family friendly of any in the country, and even the town itself exudes a delightful air of democratic acceptance. People from all over the country and all walks of life are here to enjoy a shared interest and to treat themselves to an unforgettable vacation.
Saratoga is one of those magical places where past and present, myth and heady reality come together. "Saratoga" is the Mohawk word for "the hillside country by the quiet river," and this lovely hamlet near the mighty Hudson, nestled among rolling pastures and mountains is surely a very special field of dreams. For the human beings, who come here, for the horses, and even for the canines– Saratoga is not only a tangible place, but also a state of mind that stays with the visitor long after.