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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

RACING’S FIELD OF DREAMS

From Thoroughbred Racing Commentary Archives — Horse racing often seems to be a sport built on disagreement, echoing Mark Twain’s aphorism about it being the difference of opinion that makes horse races.

It’s not just races that provide fertile ground for differing opinions, though, but seemingly everything – funding, whip use, governance, medication, scheduling, a thousand and one areas of contention in a sport and industry that frequently finds itself embroiled in an uncivil war between its various factions.

Except in one respect. It appears to be a truth universally acknowledged that Saratoga is the finest racetrack in the US, a little piece of nirvana that beguiles the head and the heart, the soul and the spirit, just a racetrack in upstate New York with one 40-day meeting every summer but so much more than that to all those who come under its spell.

It even pervades the national consciousness; everyone knows about Carly Simon’s so-vain paramour who went up to Saratoga, where his horse naturally won.

Photo: NYRA Bob Coglianese

What is it about Saratoga that makes it so exalted, so exulted over? The question hangs in the sweet-smelling summer breeze, and the answer comes back like a shout of joy. Everything.Who needs LED lights? Saratoga’s ancient changes board. Photo: Steve Dennis

Who needs LED lights? Saratoga’s ancient changes board. Photo: Steve Dennis

“Over the years it has retained all its charm,” says Steve Haskin, garlanded racing writer and former senior correspondent of The Blood-Horse. “It’s like a world apart, a state of mind that allows us to feel as if time has stood still. As much as Saratoga has changed, it has really changed very little.”

Smiles of recognition are exchanged. “Much of the appeal of Saratoga is the old-timey atmosphere, and also the quality of racing is as good as it can be,” adds Jay Privman, award-winning national correspondent of the Daily Racing Form. “And with it being a boutique meeting, only around for a short time, there’s an extra incentive to go there.”

“Yes, the historical significance and the maintained traditions, but also the social aspect. Saratoga feels like a class reunion every summer,” says Donna Barton Brothers, NBC Sports broadcaster and former very successful jockey.

That strikes a chord with Dan De Federicis, founder and publisher of the Saratoga Report news website, evangelist for the manifold delights of his home town. “The track and the town are linked more closely than any other track I know. In the summer there’s a real energy about the place, there’s nothing like it anywhere else.”

Saratoga ticks all the boxes, efficiently, effortlessly. The history of the place, unmistakable to first-time visitors as well as regulars, the annual immersion in that warm bath of nostalgia, is the recurring melody in its siren song. Over to Michael Veitch, the historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame that stands like a Valhalla just across the street from the racetrack itself.

“It is generally accepted that Saratoga racecourse is one of the oldest extant tracks in the US, with racing starting on its current site in 1864,” he says. “Yet even before this, back in the 1840s, there was trotting racing in Saratoga Springs, and the first recorded thoroughbred Flat race that we know of took place on that trotting circuit on September 16, 1847.

“Many visitors sense that history. And the grounds of the track, for the most part, are undoubtedly beautiful, although some old-time patrons resent some of the commercialism that has become part of the annual meeting.”

So it goes for old-timers everywhere, but despite the fact that Saratoga Springs is in most ways a typical modern city, it retains an old-world small-town charm that complements the sylvan setting of the racetrack – undoubtedly beautiful, as Veitch attests – within walking distance of the city centre.

For most of the year it’s a sleepy old spa town – located around 200 miles north of New York, the city that never sleeps – but between mid-July and early September it comes alive like an annual Brigadoon. This brio, this snap and crackle, is another vital component of Saratoga’s allure.

“After a day’s racing, unlike at, say, Del Mar, where people disperse to the many towns in the area, in Saratoga everybody goes to the same town to have dinner,” says Barton Brothers.

“I think that’s one of the things that make the fans enjoy it so much, because when they go out for dinner or a drink they are very likely to run into jockeys or trainers that they’ve only ever seen from a distance at the track. It also makes those involved with racing enjoy it more, because you’re sure to run into people you know.

“My husband and I go out for dinner with friends way more often during the Saratoga meet than at any other time of the year. I think it’s that way for so many people.”

Everyone feels welcome, invited guests at an exclusive shindig. “It’s all ages at the track and in the town,” adds De Federicis. “It’s a racetrack children are happy to visit, a town where everyone from 20-something to 60-something feels like they fit in, that they belong in Saratoga.”

The exclusivity, the inclusivity, the garden-party conviviality of Saratoga Springs in summer, the real world kept at arm’s length somewhere beyond the interstate, way down the Hudson river, reinforces the specialness that springs directly from the racetrack. There, that specialness is renewed on a daily basis by arguably the most concentrated offering of quality sport anywhere in the racing world.

“To win a race at Saratoga is even more special now than it was half a century ago, when I first visited the place,” says Haskin. “Here the Thoroughbred still reigns supreme.”

This year there are 77 stakes races across the 40 days of the meeting, with at least one stakes every day and an unrelenting blizzard of G1 races that includes great events such as the centrepiece Travers Stakes, known as the ‘Midsummer Derby’, the Whitney Stakes and now even the Jockey Club Gold Cup, moved last year (not without controversy) to cloising weekend from its traditional home at Belmont Park.

Many of the most prestigious races are named after heroes of old, the Forego, the Fourstardave, the Personal Ensign, the Shuvee, the Spinaway, the Sword Dancer, and those horses would all recognise their own private Saratoga because here the march of modernity has been largely resisted. As Privman says: “The track has done a terrific job in recent years of marrying new with the old, but I think the nostalgia factor cannot be overstated.”

Saratoga is racing’s Field of Dreams, its aura, its charisma as potent as the Spa water that bubbles out of the ground through a fountain in the picnic area. The main grandstand is wooden-framed and rustic, the red and white candy-striped awnings and banners are pure 1950s Americana, plenty of the fixtures and fittings have seen many summers come and go, and all the while the horses patrol the tree-lined parade ring through patches of light and shade as Sam The Bugler – Sam Grossman, who will unfortunately be absent this year for the first time since 1993 owing to health issues – clears his throat to play the time-honoured Call To Post.

Some days, of course, the racecourse is dark, and even then Saratoga has plenty to offer. A visit to the National Museum of Racing, where each August the new Hall of Famers take their place in a ceremony that – like Saratoga itself – rewardingly intertwines the past and present, is de rigueur, but the list of other options is a long one.

“Walking down the main drag of Broadway, watching the morning works over on the backstretch, attending the yearling sale, boating on Saratoga Lake, and strolling through historic Congress Park all stir the senses,” says Haskin.

Agreement, as ever on the subject of Saratoga, is easily achieved. “When you add the summer weather to the equation, it’s a great place to spend a day, a week, or the whole meet,” says Privman. Or a lifetime. “My first date with the woman who became my wife was at Saratoga races,” smiles De Federicis. “It’s the most wonderful place.”

Over at the Oklahoma training track, among the rustic/archaic (take your pick) barns, all part of the considerable and enduring charm, exercise rider Sean Duffy added his voice to the many. “Saratoga’s the best. The best atmosphere, the best racing, it’s top notch, the creme de la creme.”

The spirit of Saratoga stays with you, within you, long after the summer is over. “Even just talking about Saratoga makes me happy,” says Barton Brothers. And you won’t find anyone to disagree with that.

this feature column originally was published in Thoroughbred Racing Commentary in 2022

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