The past overtakes the present in Saratoga Springs

Contributing Travel WriterJune 21, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

    Getting there: U.S. Airways flies from Lexington to Albany by way of Philadelphia. From Albany, it's about a 35-minute drive to Saratoga Springs.

    Where to stay: Union Gables Bed & Breakfast, within easy walking distance of downtown and the race course, is a B&B worthy of the name. Rooms are spacious; breakfasts are diet-busting; innkeeper Jane Conway is the embodiment of gracious hospitality, and the expansive front porch is a great place to relax with coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening. As an extra bonus, owner Tom Fox frequently ferries guests to the track or restaurants in his classic '57 Chevy Bel-Air. (55 Union Ave. Uniongables.com.)

    Where to eat: You'll be spoiled for choice, but try these restaurants:

    ■ Maestro's, a lovely lunch spot with outdoor tables allowing you a front-row seat for all the action. (353 Broadway. Maestrosatthevandam.com.)

    ■ Hattie's has a distinctly New Orleans feel and is famous for its fried chicken. (45 Phila St. Hattiesrestaurant.com.)

    ■ Prime is a premier steak house overlooking the course at Saratoga National Golf Club. T-bones, Porterhouses and filets rule here, but the extensive menu includes seafood, pasta and 40 wines by the glass. (458 Union Ave. Golfsaratoga.com/dining.)

    ■ One Caroline Street Bistro. With its lipstick red walls, photos of famous jazz singers and nightly live music, this cellar restaurant could be in Manhattan's West Village. Try the poblano cornbread with pepper jelly or the chilled beet and ginger soup. (1 Caroline St. Onecaroline.com.)

    What to see: Saratoga Race Course's 40-day racing season begins in mid-July (July 18 this year) and extends through Labor Day. The Travers, the country's oldest stakes race for 3-year-olds, will run Aug. 23. (267 Union Ave. Saratogaracetrack.com.)

    Learn more: Saratoga.org

"From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years," wrote sports columnist Red Smith about Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Smith penned those words before his death in 1982, but were he to come here today, he'd find little has changed.

The Victorian houses on the tree-lined streets get a new coat of paint periodically and some have been converted into apartments and condominiums, but you still expect a horse-drawn carriage to pull up in front, discharging a well-dressed lady and gent.

The historic Gideon Putnam Hotel in the Saratoga Spa State Park is now officially the Gideon Putnam Spa and Resort, but it retains its air of genteel elegance.

Along Broadway, the flower-bedecked main drag, shops such as Banana Republic are designed to appeal to the modern fashionista, but walk a few steps and you're in Congress Park, a sprawling green space accessorized with weeping willows and duck ponds.

Here, the past overtakes the present.

The red brick building dominating the park, now the Saratoga Springs History Museum, was originally the Canfield Casino. Opened in 1870 by John Morrissey, a bare-knuckle boxing champion and associate of the infamous Boss Tweed, the gambling hall became popular with high-stakes types. Its exclusivity was the result of Morrissey's rule: "No ladies, no locals and no credit."

For nostalgia, visit the beautifully painted carousel at the park's edge, a gift from horse owner and socialite Mary Lou Whitney, who divides her time between several homes including those in Saratoga and Lexington.

Then, of course, there's Saratoga Race Course, the nation's oldest (built in 1863), and during its heyday, the place where, on any given afternoon, one could spot actress Lillian Russell and gambler "Diamond" Jim Brady hobnobbing with assorted Whitneys, Vanderbilts and DuPonts.

The track is still considered one of the world's finest, and its crown jewel is the Travers Stakes. Dating back to 1864, when the inaugural race for 3-year-olds was won by a horse named Kentucky, the Travers is held the third Saturday of August and often referred to as the "Mid-Summer Derby."

Reputation for mineral baths

Before Saratoga was a draw for those with gambling fever, it attracted those with gout.

Fissures in the 65-mile Saratoga Fault produce springs rich in minerals and salts. The first to discover the water's healing qualities were the Mohawk and Oneida tribes, who called the area Saraghoga, "place of swift waters."

Dutch and English settlers quickly followed, and even before the Revolutionary War, the area had gained a reputation for its mineral baths. It reached its zenith in the mid- to late 1800s, when Saratoga was known as "the Queen of the Spas."

Today's visitors who want to indulge head to Saratoga Spa State Park, site of the Roosevelt Baths. Resembling a European-style bathhouse, the Roosevelt drips with atmosphere and Old World charm, although the menu of spa services is strictly 21st-century.

Saratoga Springs blossomed into a popular destination for the well-heeled traveler before the advent of racing, but with the opening of the track, the blossom burst into full flower.

"Racing is the biggest piston in Saratoga's economic engine," says Mike Veitch, racing columnist for The Saratogian newspaper.

Touring the track, he points out places of interest, with many of the names the same in Saratoga and Lexington.

"That's Greentree Farm," he says passing a sprawling property near the track. "It used to be Jock Whitney's place, but it's now owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai." He also owns the Darley Thoroughbred breeding and racing operation, whose U.S. operations are based at Jonabell Farm in Lexington.

We cruise through Horse Haven, where trainers including Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito and Christophe Clement keep their horses.

We drive by the 1¼-mile Main Track, which won't be open for a few more weeks, before walking over to the 1-mile training track, called, for some reason, the Oklahoma Track. We've arrived a bit too late for the workouts, and only a single horse and rider circle the track.

Veitch points to the viewing stand, which provides an excellent vantage point for fans wanting a better look at the action.

"You know whose idea that was?" he asks. "It was Mary Lou Whitney and John Hendrickson. What those two have done for this town just can't be measured."

Even with history and glamour going for it, Saratoga's track doesn't rest on its laurels.

"We are constantly looking for ways to improve the visitor experience," says the New York Racing Association's president, Chris Kay, citing such recent additions as 750 new high-definition TVs and three high-definition video boards throughout the property, and an expanded roster of kid-friendly activities.

There also daily specialty events to complement the racing card, such as specific days dedicated to the food, wine, craft beer, fashion and culture of New York state.

"Our motto is that this is our house and you are our guest," Kay says. "Not our customer, not our patron — our guest and we treat you as such."

Just across from the track on Union Street, the National Museum of Racing is a must-see for those who love the sport. Walk through the replica of a starting gate — the exact width of those for horses — and go back in time.

There's the statue of Secretariat in the courtyard; saddles belonging to Phar Lap, Seabiscuit and Whirlaway, and a photograph of jockey Isaac Murphy donated to the museum by Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.

Perhaps of most interest is the gallery devoted to the Travers Stakes — or as Karen Wheaton, the museum's education coordinator, puts it, "the graveyard of champions." It's called that because Man o' War, Secretariat and the most recent Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, were just a few of the giants who came up short at Saratoga.

Bustling with activity

Despite its air of wealth and privilege, it would be a mistake to dismiss Saratoga as a relic of the past, no matter how glamorous. The town bustles with activity day and night. More than 60 restaurants, most of them espousing a farm-to-table philosophy, are sprinkled throughout the downtown area.

Wander down Putnam Street on a weekend night and find yourself in the midst of a party, mainly courtesy of Skidmore College students. Stroll along Broadway, and you're likely to encounter some of Saratoga's more unusual residents. There's Harvey, the giant rabbit who is a walking advertisement for a new nightspot, and Buccaneer, a 160-pound Newfoundland dog and his companion, a basset hound named Peaches and Cream. The two are official greeters at the Albany International Airport, and apparently, unofficial greeters on Broadway.

Finally, a few blocks from the main part of town is a once-derelict Beekman Street neighborhood re-invented as a thriving arts district. Galleries, studios and shops have found homes in spruced-up Victorian bungalows.

Destinations don't always live up to their hype, but Saratoga's motto, "Easy to reach, always exceptional," is right on the money.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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