Off to the Races

Watching the people, playing the ponies, and drinking the water 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.

Oliver Wendell Holmes—the doctor, not his son the jurist—attested that Saratoga water was “exceedingly gentle and uniform in its effects.” Then he went on, much in the manner of a wine critic for a newspaper suffering deep circulation losses, to say,

Its taste is strongly but to me pleasantly saline, with an aftertaste which hints of its invigorating chalybeate element, and an unobtrusive sparkle of carbonic acid gas which is to the boisterous energy of Soda Water as a smile is to loud laughter.

I took a few swigs. I detected some sulfur on the nose, and rusty cast-iron kettle notes dominated the mid-palate. I was slightly disappointed by the lack of vigorous effervescence, but my appetite instantly felt less depraved.

“Bathing and gymnastic exercise are important in the regimen of the health seeker,” noted a 1909 guide to the town. So the next morning I bicycled down to the state park and found my way to the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, a series of imposing brick buildings around a grassy quad, some linked with arcades that allow health seekers to take their walks even in inclement weather. Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a spa in 1929 to compete with the grand spas of Europe. The complex is at once charming and disturbing, as if designed by the architectural firm of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Speer.

I entered an echoey lobby and checked in. After several minutes, a no-nonsense woman came and read my name from a clipboard, then led me down a long, dimly lit hallway of the sort familiar from period movies about the chronically unwell.

We went into an austere room furnished with a massage table and a wooden chair. The centerpiece was the bath, set in the corner. It was deep and had a thick, squared-off rim, not unlike the tub in which the stabbing death of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat was captured by the painter Jacques-Louis David.

The tub had been filled with water the color of strong tea. The attendant noted my expression and assured me that this was the natural color and that no one had preceded me here this morning. She said she’d be back to collect me when my 40 minutes were up, and closed the door.

The waters were indeed fizzy, with tiny bubbles that caused a not-unpleasant tickling, provoking a smile rather than loud laughter. After 10 minutes, though, the amusement value dissipated, and I began to get antsy. If I wanted to lounge unclothed in a dim room in a tub of warm club soda, I could just as well have stayed home.

Despite its size and out-of-the-way location, Saratoga Springs has long dabbed on a rouge of sophistication to appeal to urbanites. One night I stopped by 9 Maple Avenue, a dusky jazz bar offering 150 kinds of scotch and 250 variations on the martini. Next door is Mare Ristorante, which has ostrich-leather couches inside and a small courtyard outside, ringed with outsized canopy beds guarded by red velvet ropes; after dinner one can repose, as in a Poussin painting, while listening to a local band. I also passed something called a “brow bar.”

The city is architecturally intriguing, with brick buildings and grand Italianate homes capped with thick cornices. The effect is not quite as consistent or convincingly Victorian as Disney World’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa in Orlando, but it comes pretty close. As befits a resort, Saratoga Springs was laid out with people watching in mind. Its downtown was built around Broadway, an uncommonly wide street flanked with uncommonly wide sidewalks dotted with café tables and promenaders. I found a seat under a large umbrella at one café and settled in with a bottle of Saratoga Spring Water to watch the pageant.

“All the world is here,” the former New York City mayor and celebrated diarist Philip Hone wrote in 1839:

politicians and dandies; cabinet ministers and ministers of the gospel; officeholders and office seekers; humbuggers and humbugged; fortune hunters and hunters of woodcock; anxious mothers and lovely daughters.

I passed the better part of the afternoon and evening sitting there drinking the local waters, devising new betting systems to test the following morning, and striving—without much success—to distinguish between the humbuggers and the humbugged.

It’s the kind of living history I could get used to.