08 August 2011

Saratoga Party

Gentlemen, start your engines! Or something like that.

My excursions into New York State have been few and can be understood in terms of Saul Steinberg’s famous westward view from The New Yorker magazine: anything beyond Westchester is simply “upstate,” a vast yet undistinguished landscape untouched by interest until the Canadian border — or, really, the Montreal city limits. Periodic attempts to correct my parochialism and to expand my horizons beyond Chappaqua reveal some absolutely gorgeous scenery, quaint old farmhouses and charming villages, curious 19th-century resorts, and the occasional college campus of note (my godchildren’s Bard, my godmother’s Vassar).

Upstate Scenic: On the bank of a golden pond

Surely one of the most renowned of the aforementioned upstate resorts is Saratoga Springs, which began to attract tourists more than two centuries ago. This is not to count the Native Americans, who discovered the local springs and praised the virtues of the mineral water there. The racetrack opened in 1863, and it’s a fair indication of the insouciance of the Yankees (or anyway, the New Yorkers) that they’d go chasing after pleasure while the rest of the country was in the throes of a civil war.

The grandstand.
It’s almost impossible to squeeze the whole thing into the viewfinder.

Last week I returned to Saratoga for the first time in many years, and discovered a bit of what lies beyond the aggressively picturesque storefronts and grand hotels of Broadway, which were all I’d seen on my first trip. Of principal interest was the Saratoga Race Course, also known as “The Spa,” which is a sort of Disneyland of horseracing. Everything is so picture-perfect! You half-expect to see costumed characters dancing around — and then you see the ladies in their hats (a Saratoga tradition), and you think, “Close enough.”

An actual race. I don’t remember which horses these are.
(Probably because I was fiddling with the camera.)

Perhaps since I so recently read Ivanhoe, thoughts of medieval tournaments inevitably sprang to mind. There are pavilions everywhere, and the pyramidical turrets along the grandstand recall the tents of warrior knights; vendors roam among the crowd or occupy their own sort of stalls; and the contests are announced with much fanfare — courtesy of a fellow called Sam Grossman, who is the track’s official bugler.

Young Lochinvar is come out of the west.

Meanwhile, the spectators are most definitely divided according to rank, much as they would have been at Ivanhoe’s tournaments. The gentry (i.e., those who are willing to pay) occupy the grandstands and the clubhouse, and eat and drink in a restaurant called the Carousel, while the more plebeian carouse outdoors. On the outskirts of the park, they gather around picnic tables and blankets, sit on lawn chairs or the ground, and watch the proceedings from afar — on TV screens.

The “back entrance” to the racecourse.
See what I mean about Disneyland?

Okay, maybe it’s not quite what Walter Scott envisioned. But it’s also much less violent (happily), and alongside Ivanhoe, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Marx Brothers turn up, too, hawking tootsie-frootsie ice cream and making mischief. If a horse named High Hat had been running, I’d have bet on him.

Clearly, I didn’t have the right racing form.

And that willingness marks a significant development. My only visits to the track were long ago, at Bossier City, Louisiana, where I never permitted myself to place a single bet. (The real interest was the road trip with my high-school friends, and the traditional pit stop at Longview, Texas, where we knew of a little diner where they served chicken fried steaks as big as asteroids.) Now, in Saratoga, egged on by Patrick and his father, who are locals and know what they’re doing, I placed four bets.

Frazil, the first horse
on whom I’ve placed a winning bet.
He’s going the wrong way here, but that’s because the race is over
and he’s off to be congratulated (and also hosed-down).

One of my horses won, but I bet so little that my winnings were really not more than symbolic. Two other horses lost, and the fourth seemed to be in some confusion as to whether there was a race at all. He loped along amiably after the others, enjoying the summer afternoon, in no kind of hurry, and I counted it a courtesy on his part that at least he remembered to point himself in the right direction, mostly.

They are beautiful creatures, aren’t they?

My losses were small, because my bets were risible. (Literally so: Patrick laughed at me.) But really, I don’t think one must bet in order to enjoy the races, and at least for this neophyte, soaking up the ambiance is plenty of entertainment. The races themselves are quick and exciting, attended by ritual and ceremony, and the people-watching is primo. Also, the beer is reasonably priced.

Under review: Before the race, in the paddock.
(Interestingly, I wore similar socks to gym class in the 1970s.)

Later we went to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or SPAC, which is the other half of the “SPAC and Track” combination that can pretty well occupy a full day. Seated on a sloping lawn just beyond the open-air auditorium, we enjoyed a fine performance of French and Russian music by the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Stéphane Denève, with guest artist Yo Yo Ma; and perhaps even more, we enjoyed a lavish picnic, courtesy of my new friends Eileen and Alec. Elton John is coming to the center on Labor Day Weekend, they told us, and that seems like an irresistible reason to return to Saratoga. “The Bitch Is SPAC” — it’s got a ring to it, doesn’t it?

In any case, it’s good to be reminded that the world is full of pleasant places, with new ground to explore, and fresh discoveries to surprise me.

Yet another little girl falls under the equine spell.
I didn’t have the guts to take pictures of the ladies in fancy hats.

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