Off to the Races: Summer in Saratoga

“This season,” my father predicts, “is going to be busy.”

We are sitting, my parents and I, on their big screen porch behind their big house in Saratoga Springs. The lengthening indigo shadows of the oaks promise a cool end to a hot summer day—typical for this upstate New York town where twilight is welcomed by the rattle of ice cubes in heavy glass tumblers.

I’ve come home to reacquaint myself with Saratoga’s perennial summertime explosion of animal spirits and high culture—a continuous round of parties, performances, openings, and horse races that my father, and the rest of Saratoga, refer to in two words: “The Season.” The phrase always tickled me, but do people still talk that way?

They do in Saratoga, which one wag described as being a hundred miles above Manhattan and a century behind it. Thirty-five miles north of Albany, the town occupies the state’s best table: seated below New York’s enormous Adirondack Park and west of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Beneath its streets and the more than 1,000 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and far below the deepest roots of its oldest maples, water burbles through the subsurface shale, escaping from a Paleozoic-era fault line to emerge as 18 separate, carbonated, and salubrious mineral springs.

Health. History. Horses. Add to that trifecta: tradition. It’s important here. One buys groceries at Putnam Market. Drinks coffee at Uncommon Grounds. Shops the farmers market on Saturday mornings. Pours tea at 3. Mixes martinis at 5. Vodka for my mother. Gin for my father. Dinner follows with bridge, opera, concert, or dance performances. (Saratoga is summer home to both the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra.) A Sunday afternoon string quartet or a benefit at the National Museum of Dance rounds out the week.

I cannot remember a time when my parents did not do this. In their 80s now, they move slowly. “Leaning into the wind,” is how my father describes it. But they are active, vital, and, after busy days, I know to find them on the porch surveying the shade garden’s hostas assiduously nurtured by my mother. This summer evening, I’m overcome by a sharp pang of love for them, for this place and their continuity.

“You adapt,” my mother says of aging. “You accommodate to living in a new way.”

So, too, Saratoga. Popular in the last gilded age, it greets this new age with aplomb. The tourists have returned in droves. New units of “luxury condos” (are they anything else?) rise downtown, fetching $650,000 as summer getaways for Bostonians and New Yorkers. The rambling houses along upper Broadway and Union Avenue easily cost double that.

A batch of new hotels cluster by the “Gut,” the unglamorous name for a working-class neighborhood on downtown’s back side. Saratoga’s polo team draws tailgaters to Whitney Field. Even old-school Saratoga Water enjoys a fizzy new popularity. The cobalt-blue glass bottles appear in upscale groceries across the country.

The tinkle in my mother’s glass returns my attention to the conversation. “She’ll meet you at noon. Be ready. She’s always on time.”

The “she” is my mother’s friend, a local power broker who knows and sees all but enjoys her anonymity. I secretly refer to her as the sachem, an Algonquin Indian word for wise elder. She has promised me background on Saratoga. She’s not known for mincing words.

I could have set my watch. At the appointed hour, the sachem’s Mercedes purrs up the driveway of the Saratoga Golf and Polo Club, a stately Georgian Revival. Since 1896, it’s been the club that matters in a town where it matters a great deal. “Of a certain age,” my hostess sports a chic black-and-white pants suit set off by a carnation-pink trench coat. Men instinctively rise from their chairs when she enters a room. Behind Jackie O shades, she scans the scene as we sweep into the formal dining room overlooking the portico terrace and nine-hole golf course. We sit down to dine on Cobb salads and Saratoga’s history.

She tells me how the “King of the Spas” flourished between the inventions of the railroad and the airplane. Back then, its gambling—at the track and in the Canfield Casino—made it the raciest of the grand old resorts. Newport, Tuxedo, Bar Harbor, none was as saucy as Saratoga.

America’s rich arrived en masse. Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Trasks, and Biddles parked their private railroad cars to “take” the waters, quaffing the carbonated liquid from the plashing springs sheltered by ornate pavilions adorned with Victorian gingerbread. They promenaded beneath the porches of the vast Second Empire hostelries that accommodated them on Broadway, the main street.

The Grand Union, which could sleep 2,000, was, by 1876, the largest hotel in the world. They gathered in ballrooms to sip champagne and nibble on frogs’ legs and the latest gossip. But air travel and changing tastes meant fewer and fewer swells arrived each summer. Hotels went from “no vacancy” to “for sale” to abandoned. Organized crime moved in. Saratoga’s canopy of elms succumbed to the Dutch disease. As a Skidmore coed in the 1950s, the sachem and her friends scavenged toilets from the derelict Grand Union Hotel.

“We grew violets in them,” she recalled. “And they did very well indeed. But the town? Dead. Except for one important thing.”

“What was that?” I inquire.

“The ponies,” she replies.

Racing isn’t just Saratoga’s passion, it’s a religious devotion. The Saratoga Race Course opened in 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and except for a brief spasm of rectitude in 1912 and a short period during WWII, it’s been open ever since—150 years of win, place, and, most important, show.

The four-legged thoroughbreds attract human ones. The annual Fasig-Tipton auction, held in a doughnut-shaped building on East Street, recently recorded 114 yearlings sold off for more than $33 million. It all culminates in the running of the Travers Stakes, a legendary late-August race that plays the equine Iliad to the Kentucky Derby’s Odyssey.

Lunch done, the sachem conducts a tour. In the late-afternoon sun, Saratoga’s dense tree canopy glows emerald.

We prowl Broadway, passing a lavish new mansion built by a medical instrument tycoon. “Only $20 million,” she says. “Just walking-around money for the Arabs.” Saratoga’s no stranger to them. The sheikh of Dubai built a 106-acre thoroughbred training center with stalls for 96 horses adjoining the racecourse. (The sheikh’s grounds are easily visible from Nelson Avenue behind the racetrack.)

That evening, neck pinched in stiff collar and black tie, I lope through downtown Saratoga’s 32-acre Congress Park, designed by the famed landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted. Fireflies spark the humid night air as 250 well-dressed men and women descend on the stately Canfield Casino, made famous by and named for Richard Albert Canfield, Edwardian bon vivant and gambler. Now a city history museum, it hosts the annual gala for Opera Saratoga, the local opera troupe recognized as one of the best small companies in the country—though it could very well be a celebration of the Saratoga Season itself.

“Saratoga was the Disney World of the 19th century,” local historian Dave Patterson had told me, “the number one tourist destination in the country in the 1870s.” Tonight at this modern fundraiser, I could imagine nothing had changed. The rooms fill with doctors, doers, and social arbiters. An immense oil portrait, easily 25 feet tall, stands at the far end of the room: a picture of Napoleon III, emperor of France, on horseback. It guards the old roulette wheel where bewhiskered robber barons and Victorian libertines like Diamond Jim Brady and actress Lillian Russell once wagered.

My phone shivers in my pocket. It’s my nephew, Connor, texting me from somewhere along the East Coast. A rising college senior on his last summer before graduation, he’s been making the most of it: interning during the week and road-tripping weekends. “Hey unc! Will u be in Saratoga for the Travers?”

“Come up!” I keep it short. It’s hard to text and hold a glass. I move to the long marbled bar and set my wine down. There’s a crush here, ordering drinks, and I strike up a conversation with one of Opera Saratoga’s performers, Seth Carico, a bass-baritone with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, who flew in to headline with the company where he first began singing as a teenager.

“I always gravitated to the green [forests] and the mountains. I fell in love with them working here,” says Carico. “Come see the Magic Flute; they’re performing it tomorrow.”

I agree to do just that. The opera is staged in the Little Theater located in Saratoga Spa State Park, part of a complex of bathhouses and public buildings built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s as the Monticello of mineral water. The park was something of a conservation success story.

In the last part of the 19th century, private companies purchased the land above the springs, pumping many dry to extract the carbonic gas for newly popular soft drinks. Water was an endangered species. To preserve the remainder, New York State bought out the factories and turned the locale into a 2,200-acre park. Inspired, I decide to book a soak in the Roosevelt Baths, the one remaining spa, tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Mozart beckons me inside. And his music works its magic. Though I can scarcely discern an alto from a tenor, the cast’s vocal grace makes it hard to believe a town of just 27,000 inhabitants can support such a production.

As the audience leaves the theater, we’re greeted by an electric guitar solo, hugely amplified and bouncing off the great brick buildings. Whaaaaaa-whaa-wer-wer-ing. It’s the 1980s supergroup Journey in concert, performing at the neighboring Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or “SPAC” as it’s been called by Saratogans since it opened in 1966.

It may not be the largest open-air venue in the country, but set in a forest glade, it is, in my opinion, the nicest. And the best part: You can listen for free if you set up shop just outside SPAC’s fences. Relaxing in lawn chairs on the thickly clovered grass are Karen and Chris Breslin. It’s date night. The kids at home, the Breslins sip Bud Lights and listen to a little night music.

Karen, a schoolteacher, loves the town’s offerings. “In a Saratoga day, you can climb a mountain, ride your bike, do a concert, and then fall asleep in your own bed.”

“This isn’t a ‘pluck your eyebrow’ kind of spa,” Trent Millet, who gives tours of Saratoga’s mineral springs, tells me before I book my bath the next day. “This is the only bathhouse in America where you can soak in naturally carbonated water.”

Millet describes Saratoga’s 18 still drinkable springs the way a wine snob does Pinots, detailing the bouquet and varying properties of the water. There’s Tallulah: “She tastes likes oysters.” And Polaris: “For digestion and nervous tension.” And even one, named Hathorne, for hangovers.

My soak begins with a meeting with redheaded Coleen Vargus, who leads me down a hall lined with doors before she opens one. New Age music plays. Candles flicker off the subway tiles. Fluffy white towels lie folded. I glance at the water pooling in the porcelain tub.

“What the … ?” I step back.

“Yeah, it’s the color of my hair,” she laughs. The water’s tint comes from the iron content oxidizing with the air. She goes on to explain its benefits. It increases blood circulation and cell oxygenation. And trace amounts of minerals like calcium (348.0 parts per million), magnesium (171.0), lithium (6.3), and iron (8.2) enhance your immunity, increase endorphins, and normalize your glands.

“I don’t know if my glands need normalization,” I say.

“Well,” she says, “at least the lithium will make you happy.”

Coleen shuts the door. I doff my clothes and sink into the cast-iron tub. The water’s amazingly buoyant, and the effervescence tickles in all sorts of places.

After the soak, I get a massage. Not technically part of the cure, it relaxes nonetheless. I don’t know if I feel thoroughly renewed, but I do notice the redness on a skinned knuckle has totally vanished.

I return to my parents’ house. It’s too quiet. “Mom?” I call out. “Dad?”

There’s a note on the kitchen table. It reads: “Mother fell. At urgent care.” When I was five and trying to dig a hole to China in my backyard, I hit a yellow jacket nest before discovering the Middle Kingdom. Stung, scared, I ran to find my parents. I’m halfway up the highway to the emergency room, when I realize nothing changes. We are still running to them.

They are in the lobby, sitting together. A welt rises across Mom’s nose. I sink down next to her. My hand works its way into hers. Neither of them is upset. They look at me quizzically.

“It’s nothing,” she says. “I tripped over a sprinkler head gardening.”

“We’re fine,” Dad says in his brook-no-debate voice.

Yes, but the next time? I see my five-year-old self in the corner. He says nothing.

Travers weekend arrives in a clot of traffic as 40,000 race enthusiasts descend on Saratoga, to gamble, eat, drink, and do it all over again. “The Travers is our busiest time,” says bartender Max Ahearn, when I stop at Sperry’s, a Caroline Street restaurant with a long patio bar, to get out of the crush. “We’ll be six-to-eight deep at the bar going seven days this week.”

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Connor and his friend Jake Herendeen tumble in, bucking with excitement. To millennials, Saratoga’s historic racetrack with its throngs of bettors, horse breeders, and day-trippers exudes an elusive glamour, one impossible to Snapchat or tweet.

“It’s being part of a tradition,” Connor explains. “You can’t replicate it. You have to experience it.”

We will. In style. I’ve gotten seats for us at the grandstand’s clubhouse near the private boxes. Those are no plush, climate-controlled NFL sky salons, either. Saratoga’s boxes are wooden, understated, and open to the air. In the pine groves down behind the grandstand, anyone moving quickly enough can command a picnic table and some shade. In an era of Escalades and escalating inequality, this is the increasingly rare American spectacle, where we all can rub shoulders or lose our shirts.

I’m intent on keeping mine. And it’s going to be a nice one. Saratoga’s tradition has you dress up for the races. That means colorful dresses and wide-brim hats for the ladies. For gentlemen, it’s a suit, or, at least, a blazer and maybe hats, too. At Hatsational, a Broadway hatter, Connor selects a nice pork pie that will complement his madras plaid blazer. Jake sports seersucker, as do I.

We look like a trio of wise guys. But it’s part of the show. As we get ready to leave, my father, no slouch in the grooming department, appraises his grandson, reaching out to tug down his lapels.

“You guys look good,” he says, slipping Connor some bills. “Bet on Mrs. Whitney’s horse, Viva Majorca.”

It’s a tribute. Marylou Whitney, 89, from one of America’s legendary fortunes, reigns as Saratoga’s queen. Over the years she’s used her considerable clout to help Saratoga, giving money to a host of local organizations when it could make a difference during the leanest years.

“Could have done nothing,” the sachem told me. “Instead she saved the town.”

As the sun warms the grandstand’s slate roof, we find our table. The familiar bugle blows, and “The Call to Post” floats across the course. The crowd leans forward, and the Travers races begin. The horses, coats gleaming, appear to fly even as their hooves thunder down the track.

Connor, Jake, and I feast on lobster rolls and $5 bets. We win. We lose. (Sorry, Mrs. Whitney.) But who cares? The crowd’s rising mood is convivial, flushed, and thirsty—hardly the pinched restraint one might expect at Ascot or Longchamps. This is an American racetrack in an American August, and anyone can play. Just embrace tradition and accommodate to the age.

That’s the secret to Saratoga, I think, drinking champagne and watching the ladies negotiate the port-o-potties at Siro’s, a famed post-race watering hole. Their hat brims, alarmingly, are wider than the narrow plastic doors. For all the snobbery that trails in money’s wake, Saratoga’s got a different view. Class, no matter what your background or wallet, is what counts here. And that’s as open to anyone as Mrs. Whitney’s box seat is to the golden afternoon air.

My father put it best.

“Saratoga?” he says later, after the crowds have dispersed, and we sit once again on his large screen porch. “It’s like me. Old, full of history, but still young at heart, I hope.”

“Now—” he rises, “can I freshen your drink?”

This piece, written by National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Nelson, first appeared in the magazine’s June/July 2015 issue. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewnelson.

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