Byline: Aileen Mehle
You will be thrilled to hear that Saratoga is opening today, a week earlier than usual, to give the track six big three-day weekends. There are even a few whispers that a two-month season here in Saratoga, rather than the usual August-only season, may be the answer. The reason is simple. New York Racing doesn’t make money at Belmont and Aqueduct, its Long Island tracks, but the money just pours in at Saratoga. So do the people. They begin arriving at 7 a.m. and keep coming until 2 p.m. The average attendance is more than 20,000. On the big Saturday, Travers Day, 50,000 might crowd in.
Belmont, on the other hand, averages just over 10,000, and a Belmont Stakes drawing 50,000 is a distant memory. Aqueduct, in the winter, draws under 6,000 — but it shouldn’t be open in the winter. Last year, the ice and snow kept the track closed 15 days. Even on days the racetrack itself may be willing and able, the roads and parking lots are inaccessible.
Saratoga has almost no parking space, but hordes rush in from all over. They come in vans and campers early in the morning and picnic all day, staking out their territory in the paddock with benches, blankets and coolers. Some watch the morning workouts, which end at 10, traipse through the Racing Museum across the street, eat, drink, even nap and, of course, bet on the horses, those beautiful prancing creatures that are the most famous racers in the country. Some 3,000 horses sought to summer in Saratoga this year, competing for big purses, but there wasn’t enough room. More than 1,000 were turned away.
Saratoga is full of famous people, as well. Along with the top trainers and jockeys from all over America, there are numbers of rich owners from Palm Beach, Europe and other chic addresses. They settle in their Victorian cottages and proceed to welcome an unending list of fashionable houseguests. These “cottages,” largely un-air-conditioned (the richer they are, the less air-conditioned they are), rent for $8,000 for the month, $10,000 with a pool. Once the sun starts to set, the mosquitoes arrive in a black cloud on the freshly painted Victorian verandas to begin their version of The Last Supper. May we expect you soon?
People watch people as much as they watch horses here. Along with the horse-racing society in residence, there are steeplechasers, the polo crowd and the carriage set. If you think a training bill is high, you haven’t seen anything like the tab for bringing your coach-and-four, plus staff, to Saratoga for a week or two. All this just for a fancy ride to a party? Speaking of parties, Marylou Whitney, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, is still the hostess in these parts — but when wasn’t she? Don’t answer that question.
If you’re mad keen on this sort of thing, a typical day might begin at 6 a.m. with coffee and a just-baked muffin at The Bread Basket, one might go on to observe workouts and visit the stables until 9 a.m., play a round of golf, swim or play tennis on grass courts at the “Little Club” and then have a real lunch on the Reading Room porch — whilst regarding the resident family of wasps that have been living there for years attacking the leftovers. May we expect you soon?
The Daily Double begins at 1 p.m., and the last race is around 6 p.m. Then it’s on to cocktails, polo, an art gallery opening, a carriage ride to a reception or party or dinner in or out. (“Out” at the popular Wishing Well can mean a three-hour wait.) And please don’t forget the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with concerts every night in the season.
But all this is merely incidental to racing, a fixation everyone shares, from the swarms in the supermarket to the upper crust in the cottages. They all ask the same questions: Who do you like tomorrow? Got anything good? Will Holy Bull come for the Travers? Will Holy Bull win the Travers?
The reason Saratoga is such a success is because everyone goes to the races. Some go every day. It’s the only game in town.
Oh, I hope you don’t think I’m forgetting the Saratoga Pet Show, which is for dogs only. It will be held on Aug. 16, during Travers Week, and will benefit the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Festivities will begin when the gates open at high noon and the canine celebrities arrive to register and primp. This year’s judges will be superjockeys Julie Krone and Angel Cordero Jr. Julie said she’d rather take pictures, and Angel said he’d rather be a contestant (?), riding along with his children in their pony carriage with his tongue hanging out, but announcer Frank Dwyer announced they would have to be judges or else. The theme of this year’s show is come-as-your-favorite-movie/television/whatever-entertainer, and 100 dogs in costume are expected to compete for the prizes, which include nourishing homemade biscuits from The Bread Basket Bakery and a gift from Kal-Kan. Dee-lish!
The judges ask that all contestants wear fur coats regardless of the weather (there’s a little joke here somewhere) and that they remain leashed to their owners. It also helps if they smile.
“The dog show has always been my favorite event at Saratoga,” said Sheryl Schwartz at Belmont last week. (Sheryl and her husband, Barry Schwartz, Calvin Klein’s partner, own horses and are Saratoga regulars.) “It’s a kick for Barry to give Calvin Klein shopping bags for a charity event and have them filled with organic dog biscuits and a Pedigree dinner. It’s a real doggy bag.” You can say that again, Sheryl. Arf!
As for the contestants, jockey Eddie Maple doesn’t want anyone to know that Phoebe, the Maples’ Lab, will come dressed as a Flintstone. (Too bad, Eddie.) Flouting the dress-your-dog-as-an-entertainer theme, jockey Jerry Bailey is bringing his cocker spaniel, Barney, done up as Sea Hero, last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, which Jerry rode for Paul Mellon. Jockey Richard Migliore’s dog, also called Barney, will be in top hat and tails and carry a cane — and Barney is taking dancing lessons. “It’s still a secret who Barney is coming as,” says Richard. Is he a hoot or what?
Recently remarried Virginia Henley (Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson that was) has historically bred a litter of little Ethiopian long-haired Chihuahuas, but what with honeymooning and all, will be showing just Sheba and Farah, who have been this route before. As have the two Barneys, the Schwartzes’ Daisy and Maggy, all Kay Jeffords’s beautiful pack of Pekinese. If it’s not too hot and doesn’t rain, the dogs have much more fun than the people. May we expect you soon?