Saratoga Dreams, Over Easy
The food is only part of the fun when breakfasting at the Saratoga Racetrack. Plus, two other Spa City treats: Polly Sparling reports on the grand reopening of the Roosevelt Bathhouse and Sara Wessman takes a spin through the Saratoga Automobile Museum.
Saratoga Dreams, Over Easy
Before the betting frenzy begins, folks come to the Saratoga Racetrack
for breakfast and a behind-the-scenes look at the ponies
By David Levine
First light. A cup of hot coffee warms your hands against the surprising chill of an August dawn. Day breaks, and in the twilight the steam from your coffee mingles with the mist that envelops the grounds stretching before you.
¡°The mist, like love, plays upon the heart of the hills and brings out surprises of beauty.¡± Here, the mist plays upon the infield, settles heavily onto the racetrack, and shrouds the Victorian spires and arches of the clubhouse. A horse whinnies in the distance. Then another. Through the fog you see the sharpening edges of a magnificent animal, a Thoroughbred, trotting slowly, a bug boy up. They stop. The horse pricks his ears.
You hear it too. Softly at first, a fast rhythmic beat: thump-a-ta-thump, thump-a-ta-thump. Growing louder. You feel it rumble in your gut. Thump-a-ta-thump, thump-a-ta-thump. Look left, down the rail. Still nothing but fog and sound, an equine snort, thump-a-ta-thump, thump-a-ta-thump. Louder still. Closer still. Hold your coffee tight.
Suddenly they materialize, rocketing out of the clouds, horse and rider in full gallop, coming directly at you. A thousand-pound beast, hooves pounding the sandy loam, thunders by at the speed of a car, THUMP-A-TA-THUMP, THUMP-A-TA-THUMP, THUMP-A-TA-THUMP. In an instant they pass, so close you feel their wake brush your cheek. And just as suddenly they disappear into the vapor, the rhythm quieting, the rumble waning, the power dissipating, thump-a-ta-thump, thump-a-ta-thump, thump-a ¡ª and gone.
A dream? No. Just another summer morning in Saratoga.
Pastries and Ponies
This sublime experience is a tradition for many of us who live up here. At least once during the six-week Saratoga Meeting, we rise early (or, if we¡¯re young and childless, we stay up all night), stop by the Bread Basket on Spring Street for fresh scones and coffee, and head over to the track to watch the sun rise and the mist burn. It¡¯s the mist, like love, that gets me every time.
Soon, though, love is replaced by a more visceral urge: hunger. It¡¯s 7 a.m., and time for some real food. Which works out well, because it¡¯s also time for another Spa tradition, one that dates back to just after the Civil War: Breakfast at Saratoga.
Back in the day ¡ª the day being, say, 1872 ¡ª New York bluebloods, glamorous entertainers, captains of industry, kept ladies, and other society types would be invited to daily trackside breakfasts of steak, fried chicken, cornbread, and similar light fare. By the turn of the century, swells in evening wear would top off a night of dancing and gambling at the Canfield Casino with frog¡¯s legs and champagne.
Okay, so things have changed. At breakfast these days, the blood runs red, not blue. The fashion statement is T-shirt and Teva, not tuxedo. The victuals are more pedestrian: an all-you-can-eat buffet of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, pastries, blintzes, fruit, and the like. But so what? The food is good, the attire is casual, the atmosphere on the clubhouse porch is unmatched, and the show is great fun.
Your morning mistress of ceremonies is a petite dynamo named Mary Ryan. She¡¯s been doing commentary during breakfast at Saratoga for nearly 30 years. Mary has spent her lifetime among the horsey set, as a professional jockey and assistant trainer, among other things. She has what can only be called an encyclopedic knowledge of all things racing, from the billionaire owners and million-dollar ponies down to the hot walkers and stable grooms. As you munch your bagel and study the Daily Racing Form, Mary is on the microphone and dashing about. Her high-energy shtick goes something like this:
¡°Oh look! There¡¯s Jerry Bailey. Jerry won the third, fifth, and ninth races yesterday, giving him 47 for the current meet. Looks like he¡¯s on My Oh My, who just shipped in from California for the Travers. That beautiful three-year-old finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont. He¡¯ll be worth watching. How¡¯s he working, Jerry?
¡°Who¡¯s this I see? Let me get my binoculars... Hey everybody, that chestnut on the backstretch is Lucky Larry, sired by the Triple Crown¨Cwinner Seattle Slew! Lucky Larry is a five-year-old gelding who likes the turf. The rider is¡oh, Elaine! Hi, Elaine! She just graduated from Cornell Veterinary School and is spending the summer here.
¡°Hiya, Pat! That¡¯s Pat Day, ladies and gentlemen. Pat is the winningest active jockey with 8,749 career victories. Who knows the all-time winningest jockey? Anyone? The first to answer wins a special prize!¡±
And so on. Breakfast has never been so informative.
If you¡¯re still around at the end of Mary¡¯s show, be sure to ring the bell. In the track¡¯s early days, before telephones, a bell was rung 17 minutes before post time to alert the riders in the jockey room that it was time to saddle up. Modern technology has made the bell obsolete, so it now resides as a historic artifact in the winner¡¯s circle. Mary asks for a few volunteers to step into the circle, interviews them (¡°Where are you from? First time to Saratoga?¡±), and then lets each give it a couple of clamorous clangs. The kids love it.
A Horse¡¯s Life
For those who have been up all night, now¡¯s the time for a few hours of sleep before the races begin at 1:00. If you¡¯re feeling fresh, though, there¡¯s still more fun to be had.
A free tram will transport you from the clubhouse to the backstretch for a walking tour of the stables. (A warning: Leave your good shoes at home. Horses are about, doing what horses do.) Guides will take you through the life of a Thoroughbred: where they sleep, what they eat, how they¡¯re groomed, what equipment they wear. Owners, jockeys, trainers, veterinarians, blacksmiths, and stable hands are hard at work preparing their charges and conducting the business of racing. You may even get a chance to chat up Jose Santos, Nick Zito, Richard Migliore, or some other of the sport¡¯s elite. (If you¡¯re not a racing buff, imagine a clubhouse tour at Yankee Stadium and chatting up Derek Jeter or Joe Torre. That¡¯s what this is like.)
The trams start at 8 a.m. and run about every 15 minutes. The last tram leaves at about 9:15 a.m., and if it¡¯s full (which it usually is), you¡¯re out of luck. So get in line early, or take an earlier tram.
On the tour, there¡¯s also a demonstration of the starting gate, that imposing and impressive piece of machinery that gets horses running fairly and safely. If you¡¯re lucky, you may get to watch a young horse being schooled in the start. The gate is imposing to ponies, too. Trainers put in a lot of time getting their young stars ready to race.
After the tour you¡¯re free to stroll the grounds, before the masses arrive in a few hours. The morning fog may be gone and summer¡¯s heat will be building, but the sense of timeless beauty and otherworldly charm lingers.
Close your eyes, conjure the mist, and imagine Diamond Jim Brady pulling up in his brougham with Lillian Russell on his arm and Japanese houseboys at his beck and call. Picture Vanderbilts and Astors dressed to the nines. Enjoy a trip back in time ¡ª and don¡¯t pass up the frog¡¯s legs. ¡ö
The 136th Saratoga Meeting runs from July 28 to September 6. The track is dark on Tuesdays. Admission to the track for breakfast is free (except on Travers Day, August 28, when it¡¯ll cost you $5 to get in). The buffet is available from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and costs $13.95 for adults, $6.95 for children under 12. Kids under four are free. You don¡¯t need reservations: it¡¯s first come, first served.