Racing: Cool and casual at Saratoga's summer party: In upstate New York, going to the track has an uncommon air of respectability. Joe Saumarez-Smith reports

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IT DESCRIBES itself as 'the nation's sexiest and coolest race meeting' and for five weeks each year it transforms the small town of Saratoga in upstate New York into the centre of American horse racing.

Trainers from Kentucky, California and Florida transport their best charges, owners take houses for the duration and an average of 25,000 people turn up for each of the 30 racing days. This last figure is the most surprising. In a country that often regards race-going as one step away from drug-taking, the Saratoga meet is an exception.

Its appeal lies both in its location and its history. Three and a half hours north of New York and approximately the same distance north-west of Boston, it is perfectly placed for those who have fled the excruciating August heat of the cities. The cooler climate - average temperatures are in the low 80s - suits both horses and humans better than the 100-plus levels in the traditional racing centres.

Racing has taken place at Saratoga since 1863, and gained its initial support from patrons who had come to take the water at one of its 150 springs. While the popularity of spas declined towards the turn of the century, , the racing continued to attract New England's social elite to lend what the local newspapers term 'a dollop of class' to proceedings.

While this reputation ensures Saratoga's pre-eminence as America's largest full-length meeting, there is no snobbery evident at the track. Unlike the British racecourse, the vast majority of the patrons are families on a cheap day out. Admission costs dollars 2 and racegoers can bring their own food and drink, so the first sight at Saratoga is thousands of picnickers with deckchairs and beer-filled ice boxes.

There is no dress code but most are trimly casual, the exception being those with reserved seats at the clubhouse restaurant, who look conspicuously out of place in their jackets and ties.

The 10-race card starts with a steeplechase which survives through tradition rather than demand, but as the afternoon continues the crowd's interest increases. These are not fanatical gamblers, their Daily Racing Forms marked with complex grid patterns, but they know enough to sound knowledgeable in front of friends. They refer to jockeys and trainers by their forenames - 'Julie's (Krone) on a hot streak now', 'Angel (Cordero) don't like that type' - but wouldn't risk more than a couple of bucks on their judgement.

Serious horseplayers are there but by the afternoon most of their work has been done. To see them in action it is necessary to be trackside for the early morning workouts.

The same dirt track that is used for racing is used for exercise. Because many of the horses are stabled on the back straight it is a vital part of a horseplayer's work to watch the morning exertions.

In contrast to the afternoon racegoers they stand with stopwatches, notebooks and binoculars, noting every move. Some drink coffee and discuss their opinions while others closely shield their evidence, guarding signs they hope all others have missed. Nearly 1,000 people turn up every morning to watch, although a regular explains that a large number of them are 'gawpers who wouldn't know which way a horse ran unless the jockey were pointed forward.'

The racing is of extremely high quality. Average daily prize money exceeds dollars 325,000 and during the meet there are nine Grade One races - equivalent to European Group One races - including America's oldest stakes race, the Travers. Last weekend's renewal reinforced the point, with success for Sea Hero, the Kentucky Derby winner.

It is no surprise that betting turnover is huge - - races are broadcast to all states where gambling is legal, as well as to many Central American countries - but to a British visitor the absence of bookmakers can detract from the colour. Dan McCausland, a British racegoer, described the atmosphere as 'sterile and clean-cut' while many of the American gamblers seem to find themselves lost among such exotic pari-mutuel bets as Quinellas, Trifectas and Exactas .

To Saratogans, August is a time for making money. One quarter of the town's annual revenue is earned during the meet and all the major events of the year are structured around the horseracing. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center books everybody from the heavy metal band Def Leppard to Frank Sinatra and The Philadelphia Orchestra, while the Fasig- Tipton yearling sale takes place midway through the meeting. Even church collections rise by 20 per cent during the meet.

August 30, the last day of this year's meeting, will bring a sudden calm to the town. It will shrink by 70 per cent to its normal size of 24,000 people as a major evacuation takes place. At the track, starting stalls, office staff and equipment, pari-mutuel machines and even signposts will be moved south to Aqueduct, New York's winter track, ready for the start of their season six days later.

At the track, amid the stalls selling everything from jumbo dogs and beer to memorial tumblers, there are a few lost souls. These are the drunken bums so beloved of American racing folklore, and now one speaks for all the players from the restaurant to the picnic lawns. 'God, this is a brilliant place,' he slurs.

(Photograph omitted)

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