It is known simply as the Spa. This stately summer resort offers visitors a chance to take a bath in tubs of mineral water or to get soaked at the parimutuel windows of one of America's most picturesque race tracks. Welcome to Saratoga.
Every year since the filly Lizzie W., running under a one-eyed jockey, won the first race held here in 1863, the first week in August has been reserved for the running of the Whitney Stakes. It is more than just another high-bucks horse race. It is the start of a week filled with fast horses, posh parties and a chance to buy a potential Kentucky Derby winner for six figures at the annual yearling sale.
The thoroughbreds on parade here last weekend -- the two-as well as the four-legged variety -- come from the stables and estates of some of the finest addresses in equestrian America -- Middleburg and Upperville in the Virginia hunt country, Newport, R.I., Palm Beach and Grosse Point, Mich.
As one matron arrived at Saratoga, she was greeted by a horseman. "Welcome to the Spa," he said. Her reply: "It's all that matters."
When Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney's horse, State Dinner, won the $150,000 Whitney Stakes to open the week, it seemed the perfect start for this summer's Saratoga run.
After all, the night before Mary Lou and C. V. "Sonny" Whitney threw a fancy party in memory of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady, both frequent visitors to the Spa in years past. A lot of people joked later that State Dinner's victory and $99,940 purse might have been enough to pay for the party for 300 of the Whitneys' friends.
Before the race, there had been talk that the Whitney horse might not have been up to running in the race named for his grandfather, William C. Whitney, in 1928.
But how could the tradition (a most important thing at Saratoga) of a Whitney horse running in the Whitney Stakes be broken? Since the inception of the race, Whitney horses have taken top honors nine times.
Invitations to the pre-race gala had included a challenge from the hostess: "Diamond Jim Brady would wear 2,548 diamonds, can you?"
The hostess did.
Mary Lou Whitney, in a white, three tiered, embroidered organza strapless Bill Blass creation, wore at least that many on her necklace and earrings alone. And for those who left their jewels in the vault, party favors for the ladies included a "genunine fake Hope diamond."
There were other goodies too: a magician, a mime and a barbershop quartet, who entertained in an adjoining room. There were omelets made-to-order, lots of champagne and a photographer to take your picture behind papier mache figures of Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell.
One guest, Luez de Pinies, wife of the Spanish ambassador to the United Nations, noting the top-heavy figure of the Lillian Russell statue said, "I have always dreamed of having something like this."
Alfred G. Vanderbilt (whose horses have won the Whitney Stakes four times) was more than happy to have his picture taken as long as his shoes didn't show. Earlier in the day, standing under the stately elms in the paddock at the race track, he bemoaned the fact that he had forgotten to bring black shoes for the black-tie affair. "I guess that means brown shoes will be in this season," he said, adding that he only planned to stay at the party long enough to make a quick appearance on the buffet like before he headed out the door.
Vanderbilt's former girlfriend, jockey Robyn Smith (now married to Fred Astaire) was in Saratoga looking for mounts to ride in the races. "I love it so much I told Fred I'm going to have to have a hypnotist or psychiatrist or something to pull myself away from the track," said Smith, 38, now sporting a new frizzy hairdo.
Three hundred years ago, the women in Saratoga wore long braids in their hair. The Iroquois Indians first discovered Saratoga as a place of swift water, 25 miles north of Albany.
In 1863, John Morrissey, a state senator from Troy and a retired heavy-weight bareknuckle champion, opened a small race track called Horse Haven. He later helped build, Canfield's Casino, a thriving gambling operation until reformers closed it down in the 1890s.
Saratoga often has been called the queen of race tracks and has also been referred to as "the graveyard of favorities."
Probably the biggest upset in racing history occured in the 1930 Travers when Jim Dandy, at 100-1 odds, upset Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. Man O'War -- a $5,000 purchase at the 1918 yearling sales, which now bring sums in the neighborhood of half a million dollars for top prospects -- met his only defeat by the aptly named Upset in the 1919 running of the Sanford Stakes. And Secretariat was upset by Onion in the 1973 Whitney Stakes.
Some visitors, however, never get to the race track: They are more than content to come to Saratoga for the mineral-rich baths.
According to Bob Holden, head masseur at the Roosevelt baths, business is just fine. "People would like to say that it's not as popular, but we have 45 to 50 male customers a day," said Holden, who has been working at the baths for 10 years. "We get a lot of jockeys and trainers in here during the season."
Holden also said that the gases in the waters pumped from nearby Lincoln Springs "dilate the blood vessels to equalize the blood pressure" in addition to "providing relief for arthritis, rheumatism and all sorts of other ailments."
The baths are located in the Saratoga State Park, where the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation and other guest artists play to a packed house most evenings during the season at the Performing Arts Center.
The Gideon Putnam Hotel is also nestled in the woods of the park, where those who don't have a home along pretigious North Broadway, Circular Street or Union Avenue can stay, to the tune of $170 to $340 per day.
Liz Whitney Tippett of Upperville, Va., who has been coming to the Spa since she was married to first husband John Hay "Jock" Whitney in 1930, has a 20-room gray Victorian style home that she has rented for the season to the New York Racing Association.
It seems that there were no adequate accommodations for the female grooms at the track and it was the only place large enough for the 40 to 50 women to live. Now three Pinkertons stand guard on the veranda 24 hours a day.
So Liz and current husband (No. 4) Col. Cloyce Tippett traveled up the Hudson to the Spa for the opening weekend on their 70-foot yacht. The Adventurer. "It's the biggest thing in Schuylerville and only 15 minutes away," said Col. Tippett, adding that they were off to Europe this week to compete with their famous driving horses as part of the first U.S. team in the World Championship coaching competition.
Saratoga is also the only major race track to offer a full schedule of steeplechase races for the hunt-and-jump set. So as part of the activities on National Steeplechase and Hunt Day, Charlie Fenwick, an amateur rider from Baltimore, and his horse Ben Nevis II, were honored.
That evening, Ben Nevis put in an appearance at a cocktail party at the Reading Room, where he promptly turned his nose up at the champagne offered. Said a photographer, "He doesn't like that cheap New York stuff anymore."