- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — This is the place the Kentucky Derby crowd calls home for the summer.

There are the women who wear stylish hats and elegant designer gowns before noon. There are the rich and famous who come here because fans let them walk the racetrack grounds unmolested. There are the late-night dinners and the even later parties. There is the horse talk that lasts from sunrise to last call.

This small town in upstate New York, for 140 years the home to Saratoga Race Course, is like a thriving horse racing theme park.

Nearly every storefront displays Seabiscuit or Funny Cide merchandise. City Hall has a Funny Cide thermometer on its steps, a tribute to the native son that nearly won the Triple Crown. Horse statues and metallic jockey helmets and whips adorn the main street of Broadway, where horse-drawn carriages haul tourists around at night.

From July 23 to Sept. 1, hundreds of thousands of fans come here to attend the nation’s most prestigious race meeting and to soak up the atmosphere of a town where residents don’t know that the sport of kings no longer reigns outside their mountain outpost in the Adirondacks.

“It’s the epicenter of the racing world,” said Michael Geraghty, a Laurel equine artist whose Seabiscuit print is the hot seller outside the grandstand. “No other place has such a county fair atmosphere where people are relaxed and away from the daily civil war struggles. Things haven’t changed in 100 years, so much of the charm is still here.”

Long history, big money

Visitors have been drawn to Saratoga Springs for two centuries, coming first from New York City, Boston and Montreal to partake of the natural waters at “The Spa.”

George Washington soaked here, then slept here. It is also where the potato chip was born, created 150 years ago by a wise guy chef seeking to silence a finicky diner.

The track, the nation’s oldest, has been drawing racing fans — the rich, the famous and the ordinary — for nearly as long as the waters have drawn those seeking a cure.

Bareknuckle fighter John Morrissey and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey walked the same wooden clapboard floors that notorious gamblers Diamond Jim Brady and Jim “Bet a Million” Gates once strode. Al Jolson was a regular here in the 1930s. Last week erstwhile teen heartthrob David Cassidy sat among 57,235 fans who filled the track.

That tradition translates into big money for the town.

More than 1 million fans came to Saratoga Springs — population 27,000 — last summer, flooding the streets and sidewalks of a town that takes jaywalking seriously. The race meet is worth $18 million to the town, according to the conservative estimate of an economic impact study.

That figure doesn’t include the thousands of dollars per week locals can make by renting out one of the Victorian homes with wraparound porches near the track — some of which can fetch $13,000 for the six-week meet. Nor does it include the money they make from the hundreds of people who pay $20 each day to park on lawns after the track’s free lots fill up more than two hours before the first race.

With hotel bookings nearly 30 percent ahead of last year because, in part, of the Seabiscuit-Funny Cide mania, many latecomers are forced to stay several exits down the Interstate.

“There are a lot of people who rent their houses and make a lot of money,” said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stables, which includes Funny Cide. “Others, like us, you couldn’t pry out of here, because we love the activity.”

That activity is nonstop. Horses stop traffic as they cross Union Avenue on their way to early-morning workouts. Family reunions form under the shady tall pines along the “Back Yard” behind the grandstand/clubhouse before and during the afternoon races.

The final race means an exit to Siro’s on the footsteps of the clubhouse entrance for a quick drink. The drink is chased by dinner, shows, late-night parties, a few hours of sleep and an early wakeup call to catch a training session — a cycle repeated day after day.

“People who are passionate about racing will do anything to be there,” said Brian Cleveland, a Brooklyn filmmaker who got married in June just a short sprint from the track. “Saratoga is racing the way it’s meant to be. The whole lifestyle revolves around racing.”

Breakfast railside

It’s 7 blessed a.m., and already hundreds of people are watching horses jog around the track even though the sun is barely slicing through the chill air. There’s a comfortable silence between the grandstand girders that resemble those at Yankee Stadium.

Only a handful of onlookers are carrying stopwatches or binoculars, hoping to spot a colt that the sleeping public would overlook when it straggles in to place bets in the afternoon — perhaps a young horse ready to make its debut or one returning from an injury that has some fire in its step.

Many come for the breakfast on the linen-covered tables and to see and be seen. Why else wear heels to an affair that begins at dawn? Some are youngsters trying to get close to the horses wandering by the rail, and some are wives who won’t return with their husbands in the afternoon to fight the heavy crowds in the heat.

“Most people couldn’t tell the difference between Santa Anita and Santa Claus, Trigger and Secretariat,” said John Noonan, an executive for a local supermarket chain. “The majority don’t know a thing about horse racing, but the amazing thing is they still come out and watch because it has been built up as something to do.”

Belmont Park has a weekend breakfast program, and a few tracks nationwide offer backstretch tours, but none has a morning program to see the stars.

Derby winners are everywhere. Trainer Barclay Tagg draws several thousand fans for Funny Cide’s workouts. D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner, moseys along on his pony as he takes his horses to the track, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat. There are jockeys Jose Santos, Jerry Bailey and Pat Day, each a Derby winner as well.

Trackside announcer Mary Ryan points out the celebrities to a crowd that often is not aware of who’s who under the protective helmets and flak jackets. The Laurel native has spent 27 summers painting the scene with a seamless commentary and bits of inside information.

“I like to tell people something they don’t know,” Ryan said. “People like seeing the celebrities, but it’s still basically the horse. They can get a chance to be close.”

The Back Yard

There is more room on an Ocean City beach on the Fourth of July than in the shady backside grass areas at Saratoga Race Course — and that’s during the week. Weekends get even crazier.

Locals begin staking claims before 8 a.m., leaving their coolers packed with beer and sandwiches there during training hours. They are later shooed outside the gates for the official opening and admitted again after paying a $3 fee.

That fee is $5 if you’re headed for the clubhouse. Combined with a $1.50 program, fans are ready for the day for less than what it costs to park at most sporting events.

“You can’t go to a movie for $3. You can’t even rent a movie for $3,” said Neil Mansbridga, a Saratoga schoolteacher who sits just outside the paddock nearly every day during the summer. “If you showed up at Fenway Park with a cooler, they’d laugh at you.”

Sitting under the tent-shaped grandstand offers a better view, but the “Back Yard” provides more entertainment. From the carnival-like stands offering “Buckets of Fries,” Italian ices and hot dogs with grilled onions to vendors hawking books to pass the downtime between races, there’s more action than at a county fair.

Celebrities stand shoulder to shoulder with everyday folks under the televisions, watching the races.

Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells was a regular in recent years, as was Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Longtime Saratoga champion jockey Angel Cordero still works a crowd that no longer follows the abandoned coat-and-tie requirements but still is well dressed.

Big Red

The Big Red Spring beside the paddock was named for Man o’ War, and legend says that its waters bring 100 years of good luck to anyone who partakes of them.

The water looks pure, cool and inviting, but it actually is ancient seawater trapped in the limestone. Eight-year-old Joseph Miller unhappily discovers this fact himself, spitting out a mouthful and making a sour face.

The springs have lured people to Saratoga for generations, drawing them to the waters that are supposed to cure what ails you. Some of the springs are tolerable to drink — locals fill jugs from those — others are meant more for splashing into sore eyes or rubbing on aging joints. The 50-degree water has 17 minerals supposed to help everything from troubled complexions to sour stomachs.

Hot towels, slippers and champagne in the town’s bath houses are only $17, though the relaxing massages are extra.

Naturally, there is bottled “Saratoga water” that tastes remarkably fresh, but the carbonated springs are too salty for most tourists.

“It’s like drinking beer for the first time,” said Holly Schwarz-Lawton of the Well Spring Project, which preserves local fountains and springs. “It’s an acquired taste.”

The Graveyard

Secretariat lost at Saratoga — twice. So did Seabiscuit. Man o’ War suffered the only loss of his career here to a horse fittingly named Upset. Jim Dandy beat Triple Crown champion Gallant Fox at 110-1.

Saratoga offers the nation’s best daily racing. Left Coasters will argue that Del Mar is superior and Kentuckians will claim that Keeneland is the best in the spring, but those tracks mostly recycle small fields and the same ponies from nearby circuits.

Saratoga draws the elite from the New York circuit and from Middle Atlantic and Florida tracks to present tantalizing opportunities for big scores balanced by maddening, ticket-tearing long shots.

“You’re not handicapping the inner track at Aqueduct in January,” Mansbridga said. “You have to go all out, because this is the best racing of the year.”

Already, the locals are salivating over the prospect of Funny Cide being made a heavy favorite against Empire Maker in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 23. Empire Maker beat Funny Cide handily in the Belmont Stakes, and some wise guy bettors figure local fans will overbet Funny Cide and provide an inflated price for Empire Maker.

But beware all those novices at the betting windows: There’s something about first-time luck that thrives at the “Graveyard of Favorites.”

“It’s old ladies and kids betting numbers and colors instead of the wise guys at Belmont,” said Billy Waters, a human resources director at a Saratoga company. “Sometimes you can get big payoffs.”

Midnight madness

“It’s not the 30 days that will get you, it’s the 30 nights.” — trainer Woody Stephens.

The sidewalks are more crowded at midnight than at midday.

The “Tip of the Hat” music festival has bands ranging from “Captain Squeeze and the Zydeco Moshers” to lounge acts that Simon Cowell would order to play in traffic. Locals — spoiled by plentiful, meterless parking spaces — moan about having to park a block away from their destinations. The horror.

It’s Mardi Gras without the “Girls Gone Wild” attitude. In fact, no teens with piercings or green hair fill these shadowy sidestreets. It’s mostly a crowd old enough to remember Secretariat winning the Triple Crown in 1973, then losing at Saratoga.

Many of the women wear black evening dresses or wide-brimmed hats, though the men mostly need a makeover.

The bars stay open until 4 a.m., but alcohol is not allowed outside and a new law has outlawed smoking even on restaurant patios.

This is Saratoga’s version of late-night strutting, and many in the crowd will arise only a few hours later to catch the sunrise workouts.

Too much?

So far, success hasn’t ruined Saratoga.

Even stretching the meeting from its traditional four weeks to six didn’t dilute the daily fun. Still, locals hope the short meeting isn’t further expanded. After all, the good times can last only for so long.

“By the time Labor Day comes around, we’re ready to get back to a normal lifestyle,” Knowlton said.

Said Noonan: “The first week is like Christmas Eve, but by the end it’s, get them out of here.”

But they’ll always come back.

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