Like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon, Saratoga Springs comes to life each magical summer.
Legions of fans will watch and wager on many of the world’s fastest and finest racehorses during the six week season beginning July 22 . With its steeply raked roof, lazily spinning ceiling fans and Victorian grandstand, Saratoga Race Course salutes a bygone era.
Already a summer destination for the well-heeled in the mid-19th century, Saratoga was celebrated for its brilliant architecture and its mineral springs' curative powers. John ("Old Smoke") Morrissey was the kingpin. A gambler, former boxing champion, and casino owner, Morrissey organized Saratoga's first thoroughbred four-day meet. It drew thousands of locals and tourists a month after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Today, big crowds, big payouts and top-flight racing are hallmarks of the "Spa" summer meet. Fans and bettors fill the hotels to capacity ready to "go racing," turning up for such storied races as the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Sword Dancer, the Alabama, the Whitney, and the Woodward stakes races. The highlight is the 147th running of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, a pivotal race for three-year olds at a mile and a quarter on August 27.
Across Union Avenue is the handsome and historic Oklahoma track. Replicating a former stand from the 19th century structure, the Whitney Viewing Stand allows the public to watch early morning workouts. In the background scores of light green barns house more than 1,800 horses in season. Shortly after sunrise, a stream of thoroughbreds stop traffic as they clip-clop across Union Avenue. With the mist rising, one after another they thunder over the dirt oval in spirited workouts at the main track.
At 7 a.m. racing fans take their seats at trackside breakfast tables in an open-air restaurant beneath the grandstand's red and white awning. Some focus binoculars on hard charging colts and fillies that zip by, others sip champagne or Bloody Marys while poring over tip sheets to map out the afternoon’s wagers.
Nearing one o’clock a ship’s bell signals horses for the first race to head over to an old-timey paddock shaded by elms and sugar maples. Jockeys dressed in a rainbow of colored silks pen autographs and often chat with the spectators. Their gleaming muscles bulging, the horses walk right through the crowd on a white-fenced lined dirt path heading over to be saddled in the paddock.
After surveying the first race runners we stop by the ever-popular Shake Shack for a couple of scrumptious burgers before riding an escalator up to the clubhouse. We place our bets at the pari-mutuel window. Now it's post time. The announcer bellows “And They’re Off,” and the day’s action begins.
If you're looking for an adventure prior to the start of racing, just head up Union Avenue to the National Racing Museum. Hundreds of plaques that celebrate Hall of Fame horses, jockeys and trainers line the walls. You'll also find equine art, artifacts, memorabilia, film, video, books and historical archives. The historical exhibits are enhanced by smart interactive displays. Kids can even pull down goggles and ride a simulated racehorse.
Yet Saratoga is a lot more than a horse town. It's a gateway to the Adirondack Mountains containing some of the best wilderness remaining on the east coast and offers an array of outdoor sports throughout its dazzling lakes, wild mountains, and charming towns and villages.
A village of pastel Victorian homes, Saratoga is 19th century picturesque. More than one thousand buildings are noted on the National Historic Register. The Saratoga Arms Inn is one, boasting the intimate appeal of a B&B and the friendly service of a boutique hotel. A wraparound veranda is a nice spot for a glass of wine while watching folks stroll down Broadway.
Set among the towering oaks and pines of the 2,300 acre Saratoga Spa State Park, the Gideon Putman Resort is named for the city founder and spa visionary. A grand brick Georgian Revival hotel, it recently received an extensive renovation, but retains the feel of another era. The stately resort is a refuge from the fevered scene in town and offers tennis, swimming, luxurious spa treatments, bicycling, hiking, nature trails as well as nearby mineral springs.
The National Museum of Dance has its own cachet. Housed in what was originally the Washington Bathhouse, it's one of the few museums in the world dedicated entirely to the art of dance. The museum honors dance pioneers of all types-- choreographers, composers, writers, dancers, or patrons.
Many summer evenings you'll find events at performance venues scattered throughout the Spa. Most memorable is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. A multi-state cultural hub, SPAC hosts the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra in an acoustically superb amphitheatre in the heart of Saratoga State Park. It also serves up a dizzying roll call of rock and pop concerts, jazz, opera and chamber music as well as the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival. It was named the 2015 best outdoor music venue by USA Today.
Downtown boasts a nice selection of art galleries as well as shops and boutiques. Don't miss Impressions, possibly the best themed equine gift shop on the planet. Specializing in fine gifts, memorabilia and casual clothing for horse lovers, star jockeys often turn up to sign autographs.
Sperry’s on Caroline Street is a thoroughbred racing season magnet, popular with a number of top trainers. We dined on the garden patio with its white twinkling trees. We started with panzanella salad with fresh mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, sun-dried tomato foccacia, argula, basil and parmesan. For entrees we selected wasabi shrimp wrapped in smoked bacon, glazed with a thai chili sauce and served with maple glazed baby carrots and french haricots and the baked swordfish over homemade succotash with carrot puree and fingerling potato crisps.
Hattie’s Chicken Shack at 45 Phila Street holds a strong piece of Saratoga history. It was first opened in 1938 by Hattie Gray– a Louisiana native with a big heart and a love for Southern cooking. Today, the kitchen is manned by Chef Jasper Alexander who won a Food Channel Throwdown versus Bobby Flay. The place has a cozy southern vibe that makes you feel like you're at a friend's house. Serves a mint Julep in an ice cold silver julep cup. Don't miss the famous fried chicken, jambalaya, the Turbodog-- an appetizer of gumbo and hush puppies-- and homemade desserts.
On our final evening we settled in on the Gideon Putnam's rear terrace. Cicadas chirped a mile a minute in the warm evening air as the world-class sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC radiated across the park. Enjoying a late night drink we mapped out a return Spa visit, while soaking up the perfect marriage of past and present.