Mineral springs, gambling and horses.
In this world-famous thoroughbred racing hotbed, the four-legged
stars who have drawn people here since the bloodiest days of the
Civil War actually took third billing coming out of the
19th-century tourism starting gate, trailing the resort spas and
the casinos that offered visitors a diversion in between the taking
of the waters.
”The waters brought them first, the casinos second and the
horse racing third,” said Allan Carter, historian at the National
Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, located
across Union Avenue from historic Saratoga Race Course.
It may have started out trailing the field, but ”the Sport of
Kings” soon took the lead and still reigns supreme in Saratoga 150
years after the first thoroughbred races were held Aug. 3, 1863.
That was just a month after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg
ended. A year later, the war was still raging when the second
thoroughbred season was held at the newly built race course,
located across the road from the site of the first races.
Over the next century and a half, Saratoga’s racing season
became intertwined with America’s sporting and cultural fabric,
attracting generations of robber barons and blue bloods, gangsters
and celebrities, professional gamblers and $2 bettors. It’s
America’s most successful racetrack and its oldest sports venue, a
summertime destination that draws visitors from around the world
who catch the daily racing card in between soaking up the city’s
Victorian charms as well as its upscale 21st century amenities –
including a vibrant nightlife, upscale shops and trendy
”From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn
left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years,” the late sports
columnist Red Smith famously wrote when offering directions to his
Over the next few months, Saratoga is celebrating the 150th
anniversary of the start of thoroughbred racing with a series of
events, including concerts, exhibits and festivals centered on the
racing season, which begins July 19 and runs through Labor Day,
Americans first began trekking to Saratoga in the decades before
the Civil War, when the many mineral springs dotting the area drew
visitors looking for relief from various ailments. Southern
plantation owners brought their families north to escape the
southern heat, while wealthy New Yorkers journeyed upstate to enjoy
the country air.
A thriving hotel business sprang up along Broadway, Saratoga’s
main drag, as the summer crowds at ”the Spa” grew through the
1840s and `50s, arriving aboard trains that deposited them just a
short stroll or carriage ride from their accommodations.
Entrepreneurs soon began offering other diversions for the men
bored with the daily rounds of mineral water tastings, cotillions
and concerts. Gambling joints sprang up, including casinos owned by
John Morrissey, an Irish-born Tammany Hall
enforcer-turned-prizefighter-turned politician. But the gambling
dens didn’t open until the evening, leaving the afternoon wide open
for men with money to wager.
Morrissey filled that void. With the backing of several wealthy
businessmen, he held the first thoroughbred races in Saratoga on a
track located on Saratoga’s eastern outskirts. The next summer,
they moved the races across Union Avenue to the newly built track,
where the races have been held ever since.
Saratoga has hosted many of racing’s greatest equine stars,
including Man o’ War and Secretariat. Many have won here, and
nearly as many – included the aforementioned legends – have lost
here, earning the track the nickname ”graveyard of
The highlight of Saratoga’s 40-day meet (the track is closed on
Tuesdays), is the Travers Stakes, being run for the 144th time on
Aug. 24. Older than the Kentucky Derby by 11 years, the Travers
typically attracts some of racing’s top horses. Saratoga hosts
other storied races, such as the Alabama and the Whitney, and it’s
known as the place where the sport’s future stars first make their
mark racing as 2-year-olds.
The racetrack grounds, with their wooden, open-air grandstand
and clubhouse dating back to the 1890s and late 1920s,
respectively, give the place its old-time feel, even with such
modern additions as New York City-based Shake Shack among the
varied concession offerings in the tree-shaded paddock area known
as Saratoga’s ”backyard.” Picnic tables are available and
trackgoers are allowed to cart in their own food and beverages into
this popular section.
Outside the track, Saratoga Springs, a city of 28,000, is known
for its Victorian architecture, with examples of Second Empire,
Queen Anne and other styles from the 19th century and early 20th
century along Broadway and surrounding tree-lined
Among the most notable buildings is the casino Morrissey built
in 1870 in what is now downtown’s Congress Park. Later renamed
Canfield Casino for the professional gambler who purchased the
property in the 1890s, the three-story brick Italianate hasn’t been
operated as a casino since an anti-gambling crusade shut it down in
But the city is home to one of the state’s nine ”racinos,”
Saratoga Casino and Raceway, located just down the street from the
”flat track.” The racino has more than 1,700 electronic slot
machines along with electronic roulette and craps, with harness
racing most evenings and weekends.
If Saratoga is a haven for horses, it’s also a city of museums.
The city-owned Canfield Casino, a venue for galas, weddings and
other events, is also home to the Saratoga Springs History Museum.
Exhibits tell Saratoga’s story from its days as a frontier
settlement and European-style resort spa to a horse racing mecca
and gambling playground that drew mobsters like Meyer Lansky and
Dutch Schultz along with upper-crust Whitneys and Vanderbilts.
In addition to racing and history museums, there’s the National
Museum of Dance, New York State Military Museum, Children’s Museum,
Saratoga Automobile Museum, and Tang Teaching Museum on the
Skidmore College campus, among others.
Saratoga made significant strides in marketing itself into a
year-round destination to avoid the boom-and-bust swings businesses
typically experienced during the decades-long period when the
racetrack was only open for four weeks in August. Those efforts,
combined with the track’s continued popularity, have spurred a
hotel construction boom in recent years, with more on the way.
Still, the biggest demand for lodging occurs in the summer,
especially during racing season, when rates can double, another
At Saratoga Arms, a 31-room concierge-style hotel on Broadway,
and the Gideon Putnam, a 75-year-old resort in Saratoga Spa State
Park, rates for the best rooms top $600 a night during August.
Other lodging options range from popular chains such as Holiday Inn
and Marriott to charming bed-and-breakfast accommodations and
locally owned motels.
Dining options include Thai, Italian, Irish pub fare, bakeries,
tapas and steakhouses. The downtown district that includes Broadway
and Caroline, Phila and Henry streets is the center of Saratoga’s
nightlife, with bars, jazz clubs and nightclubs interspersed with
shops, from local clothing boutiques to such national retailers as
Banana Republic and Chico’s.
If You Go …
SARATOGA 150TH: http://www.saratoga150.com. Official anniversary
website, listing events May through September.
SARATOGA RACE COURSE: http://www.nyra.com/saratoga ;
718-641-4700 or 516-488-6000 before July 19, 518-584-6200 from July
19-Sept. 2. Thoroughbred racing daily except Tuesday, with first
race post time 1 p.m. most days.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF RACING AND HALL OF FAME:
http://www.racingmuseum.org. Across Union Avenue from racetrack.
Tells the colorful history of the ”Sport of Kings.” Hall of Fame
induction ceremony, 10:30 a.m., Aug. 3, at Fasig-Tipton Sales
Pavilion, around the corner from museum.
SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (SPAC): http://www.spac.org.
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, June 29-30; Opera Saratoga
(June 23-July 7); ballet (New York City Ballet, July 9-13; National
Ballet of Canada, July 16-18; Aspen Santa Fe, July 24-25);
Philadelphia Orchestra, Aug. 7-24; rap, pop, rock and country
concerts from Memorial Day weekend (Dave Matthews Band) through
Sept. 5 (Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson).
SARATOGA SPA STATE PARK: www.nysparks.com/parks/saratogaspa.
Home to SPAC, Gideon Putnam Resort, Roosevelt Baths and Spa, two
public swimming pools, 36-hole golf course, picnic areas, and miles
of wooded trails for walking, running and biking amid 2,200 scenic
GIDEON PUTNAM RESORT: http://www.gideonputnam.com. A 78-year-old
resort hotel named for early Saratoga settler, with 124 rooms, bar
and restaurant, located in state park. SPAC and Roosevelt baths a
short walk away. Standard rates double from $200 to $400-plus
during racing season.
SARATOGA SPRINGS HISTORY MUSEUM: http://www.saratogahistory.org.
Located in the 1870 Canfield Casino, located in downtown Congress
Park. ”The People Behind the Track: The Founding of Saratoga Race
Course,” opening July 19. Museum open daily. Admission: $5 for
adults, $4 for Seniors. Free for children under 12.
SARATOGA ARMS: http://www.saratogaarms.com. A taste of the
Gilded Age in this 31-room bed and breakfast located in a renovated
1870 building in heart of downtown, with porch overlooking
Broadway. Rates: $209-$629, depending on room.
NYS MILITARY MUSEUM: http://dmna.ny.gov/historic. Housed in a
former state armory built in 1889, the museum is home to a vast
collection of artifacts related to New York’s role in America’s
wars, including the nation’s largest collection of Civil War battle
flags. Current exhibits include New York during Revolutionary War,
both World Wars and Civil War, with special sesquicentennial
exhibit, ”Empire for Union.”
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