On a mild August Friday in downtown Saratoga Springs, Broadway teems with nocturnal creatures of all cultures. There are Big Apple ballers competing for the affections of stilettoed beauties, graying bluebloods who summer in the historic upstate hamlet, hippie folk musicians strumming Dylan for tips, college-aged chalk artists coloring in the sidewalks, and a magician with three mismatched ropes in his hands.
After a series of tugs and twists, the magician is suddenly holding the same three ropes, only now they’re of uniform length. How did he pull off this optical illusion? Who knows? For the vast majority of people, magic’s inexplicable.
The same illogic applies to Saratoga Race Course, the horse track down the street. Established in 1863, it’s the longest-tenured Thoroughbred track in the United States. But age alone cannot account for the depth of its mystique. It plays host to live racing only six weeks out of each year in a place bursting with highbrow entertainment options, especially in the summer, when the area serves as home base for both the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra.
And yet, for a month and change, the track’s grip on Saratoga Springs’ swollen seasonal population is absolute, its ability to electrify an entire community unrivaled among American sporting venues. It is equal parts sophisticated and folksy, progressive and old world, and reflective of both the wonders of human ingenuity and of leaving Mother Nature to herself. It is, in a word, magical—yet without horses it wouldn’t have a wand.
With its compact summer schedule, if it’s Saturday at Saratoga, odds are Secretariat-like that there’ll be at least one graded stakes race. The biggest draws are the Whitney and the Travers, dirt routes for older horses and 3-year-olds, respectively, that are spaced three weeks apart. Even on these most crowded of days, claustrophobes needn’t worry, as the picnic grounds are so ample that there’s room to move around. In between are the Fourstardave and Alabama (the former on turf, the latter on dirt for fillies), with the Woodward Stakes winding down the track’s final weekend. And this being a course that often boasts $85,000 maiden purses, the undercards are usually spectacularly competitive, with horses summoned to the paddock 17 minutes before post by the incessant ringing of some very old bells.
With the exception of a pair of escalators and the multitude of flat-screened televisions that permeate the picnic area, walking into Saratoga feels like entering a 19th-century fairground. There are giant red-and-white tents and awnings, and the air smells of butter and cigars. Entertainers, such as a multi-generational ragtime song-and-dance group called Reggie’s Red Hot Feet Warmers, seemingly crop up out of nowhere, hawking CDs as they busk in broad daylight. Ticket-takers and ushers, many of them in their teens, sport red vests, forever wielding white rags in case seats need a wipe-down. In the wooden grandstand, antique ceiling fans offer the venue’s only al fresco defense against the stifling summer humidity.
Cocktails don’t come cheap at Saratoga, but $5 might get you a Yuengling tallboy tucked into a customized koozie in the Post Veranda, where a Shake Shack provides sustenance. In the grandstand carousel is a micro-outpost of Hattie’s Chicken Shack, a soul-food mainstay that’s done brisk business downtown since 1938. The clubhouse bar substitutes bourbon for vodka in its Bloody Mary, and the track’s signature Saratoga Sunrise pulls a similar switcharoo by swapping tequila for vodka alongside orange juice and grenadine.
But, frankly, Saratoga’s biggest culinary selling point is its ultra-permissive policy concerning outside food and beverage. Got a massive cooler you’d like to pack with beer cans and cold cuts? Have at it, so long as you don’t drag your largesse into the track’s upper reaches. And if slightly haughtier fare is your objective, for a modest minimum you can call dibs for the day on a table at the trackside Porch, provided you have the foresight to make reservations (844-NYRA-TIX).
Where to Eat
The Saratogian is the town’s longtime daily newspaper, and is famous for its Pink Sheet, a sports section within a sports section that focuses on all things equine. Its name is to be taken literally, as it is printed on pink paper. So it goes at the Country Corner Cafe, a small, popular eatery on Church Street, which has a delightful breakfast. The coffee is warm, but the service is warmer.
A few strides away, 15 Church has garnered rave reviews for its farm-to-table fare, and the bustling Max London’s serves satisfying gourmet pizza downtown. But the quintessential Saratoga dining experience lurks three miles north of the city on Route 9. There you’ll find The Wishing Well, a woodsy highway hut of Adirondack culture whose longtime stewards have altered precious little since the restaurant’s 1936 inception. Ostensibly a steak and lobster house, its true standout is sweet local corn on the cob, which is best enjoyed sans butter or any other garnish.
In the lounge, not far from a memorably rustic mural, sits a mustachioed pianist named Rob. A music teacher by day, he plays everything from standards to deep Billy Joel cuts, occasionally inviting trusted patrons to sit in and sing. And if Rob breaks out his flugelhorn during a Mose Allison ditty, well, that’s just as regular as the taxidermy on the wall (also locally sourced, no doubt).
Where to Drink
In the immediate vicinity of the track, the post-race masses generally head to one of two hotspots, each with tented outdoor beer gardens and live music. Siro’s, located directly across from Saratoga’s clubhouse entrance, caters mainly to behatted lasses and their seersuckered courtiers, while the nearby Horseshoe is more ballcaps and beer.
For those seeking a slightly mellower place to wait out traffic, a pair of taverns - Kings and The Brook - effectively merge the old with the new. The Brook boasts the same owners as The Wishing Well, and reveals them to be as versatile as Ghostzapper in their ability to shift between disparate templates.
Druthers, located in the shadow of the historic Adelphi Hotel, is a popular downtown brewhouse with an attractive courtyard, while more intrepid types are likely to descend a Caroline Street stairway through the doors of the hallowed Tin and Lint. While Don McLean denied a longtime rumor that he wrote “American Pie” on a series of cocktail napkins there, a likelier locale for such an endeavor is Caffe Lena on nearby Phila Street. The nation’s oldest continuously operating folk coffeehouse, Lena was supposedly the first place outside of New York City that Bob Dylan played, and also welcomed the likes of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Ani DiFranco to its stage.
Where to Sleep
Located in Saratoga Spa State Park, hotels don’t get much grander than the Gideon Putnam. But for visitors on a motel budget, the Community Court and Downtowner are two centrally located options. Bear in mind that, during racing season, a “motel budget” in Saratoga Springs is still well north of $100 per night, putting Airbnb in play for those who don’t mind sharing an accommodating couple’s spare bedroom with their dachshund.
You aren’t an elite East Coast trainer if you’re not saddling a slew of horses at Saratoga in August. Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Graham Motion, Chad Brown, and Michael Matz are just a few of the stars likely to be strategizing in the paddock. As for who gets the prime mounts, John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Jose Lezcano, Joel Rosario, and brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz are among the star jockeys that summer in Saratoga.
Saratoga Springs is home to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the sport’s equivalent to Cooperstown, located directly across Union Avenue from the track. While the museum, which effectively doubles as an art gallery, is especially valuable to novice horse fans, diehards are liable to spend an hour or more reading every last word on the plaques of the Hall’s enshrined.
After a day at the races, it’s wise to stretch out by taking a walk to and through Congress Park, a meticulously manicured 17-acre expanse upon which the ornate Canfield Casino sits. It no longer caters to card sharks (instead, it hosts wedding receptions and other black-tie events), but the vintage high-roller room upstairs remains intact. From there, one can throw a rock and hit the former homes of any number of influential colonial politicians. To John Quincy Adams, wherever you are: Don’t worry. I’ve got someone coming to fix your dinged-up storm window next Tuesday.
Beyond Broadway, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is a masterfully designed outdoor amphitheater that stages radio-friendly and classical concerts alike, as well as ballet. It shares the sprawling Saratoga Spa State Park with the Gideon Putnam and the National Museum of Dance, among other attractions, not the least of which are the restorative springs from which the town draws its name.
This piece was virtually shoed by ex-Saratogian scribe Mike Mahoney, who provided an invaluable cultural tip sheet to the author (on Twitter @mdseely).