"The Season" is in full swing here in Upstate New York, about 190 miles north of and several bygone eras away from Manhattan.
From across the eastern seaboard, hordes of the horse happy are gathering to rub elbows with socialites and social climbers for the 136th annual Saratoga Race Course late-summer meeting, a month-long affair defined largely by breakfasts and bloodlines. To Saratoga, which likes to call itself a town of health, history and horses, some have come to sip the rejuvenating carbonated waters of the legendary springs, or to take a restorative mineral bath in the historic bathhouses. Many more will take a different sort of soaking at the parimutuel windows at America's oldest thoroughbred racetrack (1863), or playing the 1,300 new video lottery slots humming up the road at the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway harness track.
The deep-pocketed fortunate few will swirl at an endless number of summer soirees, sit in red leather chairs in box seats at the track or sip champagne and chardonnay at tables overlooking the finish line, where jackets and ties must be worn by the men and cutoffs and tank tops are strictly forbidden.
All around this Revolutionary War town there are countless brie-and-wine book signings to attend and lots of mostly mundane equine art showings in motel meeting rooms or temporary canvas booths set up within furlongs of the grandstand at the track.
The belle of it all would be 78-year-old Marylou Whitney, who cashed her own winning ticket when she married Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, one of the wealthiest bachelors around, in 1958. The family fortune goes back to Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, and together the well-connected couple raced a number of championship thoroughbreds.
When Sonny passed away in 1992, his eternally blond and bubbly widow inherited a reported $100 million, allowing her to continue the family traditions of racing horses and throwing elegant parties. One was staged Friday night at Canfield's Casino, in historic Congress Park, for several hundred of her closest friends the evening before the Whitney Stakes, held annually on the first Saturday in August.
This year's party, dubbed "A Night in Mexico," included a mariachi band, Mexican dance troupe and sombreros for all, including the star-gazing spectators outside the casino on hand to ogle arriving guests. The interior of the casino -- closed down as a gambling emporium in 1951 in a federal racketeering crackdown -- was transformed to resemble a mini-Tijuana, minus the Border Patrol. Marylou Whitney wore an antique white chiffon creation designed by Carmen Marc Valvo and walked into the black-tie affair leading a burro. On her arm was third husband John Hendrickson, 39, a handsome former high school tennis champion who once taught at Nick Bolitieri's Florida tennis academy. The couple's latest race horse legacy is a handsome 3-year-old colt named Birdstone, best remembered for upsetting the great Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes in June.
Big-time races with the nation's best thoroughbreds going after six-figure purses make up the highly visible public face of Saratoga, but the race track also attracts a fascinating blend of characters who also are the lifeblood of the sport. A day on the 350-acre grounds begins early in the morning mist for a battalion of grooms, exercise riders, "hot walkers" and trainers, some of them living in the spare cinderblock rooms on the backstretch of the two adjoining training tracks, others renting rooms or homes around town.
Gregg Ryan, 44 (one of People magazine's most eligible bachelors in 2000), who divides his time between Middleburg, Va., and a home and his corporate insurance office in Northville, N.Y., gallops horses at breakneck speeds at Saratoga most mornings. He is 10 victories away from setting the record (148) as the all-time leading amateur steeplechase rider. "I was never a good spectator," Ryan says. He has been on horses all his life and has been making the drive here ever since his father began taking him to the races as a youngster. "It will always be a magical place for me."
The track is off Union Avenue, a street lined with massive mansions built in the early 1900s with wraparound porches dripping with hanging baskets of flowers. Once private homes, many now serve as expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodations and seasonal rentals. At the north end of the wide street, a topiary of begonias spelling out the date is changed daily. The race track comes alive at sunrise. One of the longtime traditions is "Breakfast at Saratoga." In the late 19th century, an invitation to breakfast at the track to watch the workouts was considered an entree into society. Back then many guests would arrive for breakfast still dressed in black tie and gowns from the previous night's carousing, and the menu included frog's legs, champagne and local melons. If the fare proved too rich or the pace too taxing, the waiters would simply put a screen around the worn-out reviler and allow him to sleep off the previous night's libations. These mornings, the steak-and-egg menu runs about $13.50 per patron, and there are no screens.
Elizabeth "Cookie" McKinsey, 67, has watched the summer scene here since she was a little girl. Her grandfather owned DeRossi's, an Italian restaurant in the Dublin section of town, a blue-collar neighborhood originally populated with Irish and later Italian railroad workers.
She can still recall Rita Hayworth and her husband Prince Aly Khan coming over to eat dinner after the final race, along with Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker and Lucille Ball.
"Mrs. Richard C. duPont had a catered party there every year," McKinsey recalls. To this day, the very same Allaire duPont remains as a grande dame of racing royalty and is still going strong at 92. She flew into town on a private jet Thursday from her 1,500-acre Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md., to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Thoroughbred Women Inc.'s breakfast.
Mornings are also a crucial time for the track's devoted patrons, many willing to bet the rent, or at least part of it, on their favorite mount. During the Season, visitors all over town can be seen with their noses in the Daily Racing Form or the "pink sheet" portion of the local Saratogian newspaper devoted solely to the track, trying to pick winners. One recent morning, four men sat poring over their picks on the balcony of the Turf and Spa Motel, a mid-century motel where the rooms go for $190 a night on the weekend and half that price off-season. By 10 a.m. on race days -- only Tuesdays are "dark" -- racegoers spread out tablecloths on picnic tables under the stately elms near the paddock. The horses have finished their morning workouts. Some of the jockeys, wives and even trainers might hit the bathhouses or slip away for a quick round of golf before their horses compete later in the day.
But for hard-core horse players and horse lovers, most of the best action will be in and around the track. Tomorrow, for example, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who began his apprentice career at the Maryland tracks, will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
On Tuesday, a few blocks from the track, the money will flow at the annual Saratoga Yearling Sale, where a legendary horse named Man o' War sold for $5,000 in 1918. Last year, the average price of a yearling was $313,357, a 25 percent increase from 2002.
Over at the Saratoga County Airport, they're expecting an additional 15 to 20 private jets per day to wing in from around the world for sales that run through Aug. 16. Some buyers may even wander to the outskirts of town, where several evenings each week a small group will gather for chukkers of twilight polo (no gambling allowed), unless they need a bit more action with the trotters and slot machines at the harness track.
The final week of the Saratoga race meet is called the stretch run, and with good reason. It's the last chance to hit a big exacta, to get even for most. For some, the finish line is a welcome sight.
"It's almost getting to be too much," says Susie O'Cain, who will have chaired three other charity events by the end of the summer season in addition to the breakfast for Mrs. duPont.
"It's like a big sucking sound when everyone leaves," says Jill Wing, the features editor of the Saratogian. "We can finally go back to the restaurants and bars."
It almost makes one wonder why so many New Yorkers would even bother with the Hamptons. The moneyed set at the spa adds "color and sparkle" to her home town, according to lifelong Saratogian McKinsey. "Old money are lovely people," she says. "It's the nouveau riche I have a problem with."