Travels April 2007

Off to the Races

Watching the people, playing the ponies, and drinking the water in Saratoga Springs

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Travel Advisory
Where to stay, where to eat, and what to do in Saratoga Springs

It was nearly post time for the fifth race of the day at the Saratoga Race Course, and I was leaning on the rails along the paddock, refining a betting system I’d recently devised. I can’t reveal much about it, other than to say it involved a close read of the jockeys and was strongly influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.

And at Saratoga, you can get close. The paddock is set amid elms, maples, and vendors of sugary confections. Anyone who can afford the $3 admission can spend the better part of a day lounging in this area, called “the backyard,” and many do. Hundreds of people around me were enfolded in origami-like nylon chairs they’d extracted from quivers and set up next to Lego-colored coolers. The jockeys and their horses filed past, mere feet away, and some of the riders exchanged pleasantries with the crowd. I was close enough to smell the horses, and I could tell—blink!—which jockeys were sweaty and nervous, which crisp and collected.

Wagering on horses in Saratoga Springs started in the mid-19th century, and the racecourse is home to one of the oldest thoroughbred stakes in the country: the Travers, first run in 1864. The track is wonderfully historic and cinematic, with a steeply raked grandstand and languorously spinning outdoor ceiling fans. Remarkably, it has been holding its own in an era when other historic tracks have been faltering. Saratoga was not just one of the first of the great tracks; it will likely be one of the last.

After the riders passed by, I hopped on the escalator up into the grandstand to place my bets and take my seat. The bell sounded, and the horses were out of the gate. They formed a long rosary on the far side of the track, then came around and thundered past me in a blur. The winner was ridden by a sweaty, nervous-looking jockey. I pulled out the program, looked over the lineup for the next race, and settled on a new betting strategy, which I also can’t say much about other than it involved the names of ex-girlfriends.

While waiting for the next post time, I sat back and enjoyed an order of freshly cooked potato chips—they were invented here in 1853 by a chef piqued when a customer complained that his fries weren’t thin enough. And munching away, I realized that this sort of space—where one is simultaneously sheltered and exposed, both indoors and out—is an essential part of any great vacation. All of my most memorable holidays involve idle time in this third space, whether it’s under a café umbrella, or in a three-sided backcountry shelter, or on a chaise lounge beneath the slightly menacing shadows of coconut palms. Ensconced amid the elaborate trusses and brackets of the old grandstand, I took in the breezes and aromas and squawky sounds of the track, able to watch others without feeling watched myself.

Add the quirky local lore and the haute-urban amenities outside the gates in Saratoga Springs, and this small, inconveniently located city becomes one of the most captivating museums of living history I’ve ever found.

Saratoga Springs, a city of 27,000 in upstate New York tucked between the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks, never had any aspirations other than to be a summer resort. It is, in effect, the young man who grew up wanting to become a tennis pro, and became one.

Horse racing has a long heritage in Saratoga Springs, but it was actually a diversion concocted for summer guests who had already flocked there. The city’s popularity dates to the late 18th century, when various wanderers discovered a series of natural springs amid the area’s vales. The waters gather minerals on their journey to the surface, and also carbon dioxide, which makes them a little gassy. They were “exceedingly pungent to the taste,” General Otho Holland Williams noted in 1784, and “often affect the nose like brisk bottled ale.”

More than a recreational beverage, the waters were thought to be medicinal. Thousands visited the springs hoping for cures for afflictions including (according to one 1821 inventory) “Habitual Costiveness,” “Depraved appetite,” “Calculous and nephritic complaints,” “Cutaneous eruptions,” “Some species or states of gout,” “Some species of dropsy,” scrofula, amenorrhea, and dysmenorrhea. The waters were also heralded for their laxative properties. The Revolutionary War officer St. George Tucker, for instance, rejoiced in his journal, “This morning I had one of the most bilious discharges I ever had in my life.” One historian has even credited the springs with breaking down early social taboos about discussing private bodily functions.

Some 150 springs were tapped around Saratoga Springs, although most have been lost or dried up. Congress Spring, discovered in 1792, is among the 17 that may still be visited. It has a position of prominence just inside the entrance to Congress Park, a manicured tract of 32 downtown acres studded with Greco-Roman and Victorian structures, which give the park an endearing Mary-Poppins-goes-to-the-Acropolis feel. Today, Congress Spring tumbles out of a lavishly rust-stained fountain under an open-sided Doric temple. I marveled for a moment about the gullibility of the Victorians who bought into such a patently fraudulent commercial enterprise—It’s just water!—and then took an empty Poland Spring bottle from my day pack and filled it up.

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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