By reputation is an elitist place, a mecca for America's rich horsey set.
This is the town where racetrack doings are reported on the society pages as much as the sport pages. This is the town where the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts party every August. This is the town where men wiggle a pinkie to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for 1-year-old horses at the Saratoga Yearling Sales.
But there is another side of Saratoga that bears little resemblance to this elitist version. It is the Saratoga that is a community of horseplayers. A motley group of bettors is converging on this town for the four-week meeting that begins Wednesday, and most of them think of the season here as a very special part of their lives.
These gamblers are not people who would be regarded as esthetes, but even they are affected by the beauty and charm of this racetrack. There is a intimacy here that is unique in American racing, Bettors can stand by the horses as they are being saddled under the elm trees in the outdoor paddock, then mingle with owners, tainers, jockey agents and other gamblers by the porch of the racing secretary's office. For New Yorkers, it is a far cry from the impersonal supermarket efficiency of Aqueduct. For a visiting Marylander, it is light years away from the decreptitude of Bowie.
When each day's parimutuel activity is ended, horseplayers fill the town and dominate it; in every public place there are lively discussions of races, jockeys, trainers, handicapping theories.
During the 11 months of the year, a man obsessed by the horses feels a bit idiosyncratic when he leaves the track and steps out into society at large. He may even feel he has to apologize for his obsession. But here in August there will no one to tell a manic horseplayer that what he is doing with his life is antisocial, self-indulgent or fruitless. Here everyone shares the same passion. The inmates are running the asylum.
This total absorption in racing helps make a season at Saratoga a great learning experience. I have measured out my life as a horseplayer in Saratoga meeting; most of what I have learned about handicapping I have learned here.
My education came partly from association with the many professional gamblers and dedicated amateurs here. People who move to Saratoga for a month are serious about the game, and there is a greater concentration of handicapping talent here than at any other American track. The education came also from the difficulty of handicapping at Saratoga; this is a track which forces bettor to work hard or go broke.
Saratoga demands a mastery of many different facets of handicapling. Years ago I came here with the speed figures that had brought me almost effortless success in Maryland, and assumed that I would knock Saratoga dead.Before the meeting was over, I was leaving town quiety on an Adirondack Trailways bus, my confidence shattered.
Saratoga offers may 2-year-old races, grass races, steeplechase races and stakes races, all of which require specialized handicapping skills. Saratoga requires a knowledge of the 30 or 40 major trainers who operate here, an understanding track conditions and many other subtleties.
Yet despite the challenges it poses, Saratoga can be very profitable because of one unique factor. Most of the money in its wagering pools is bet by people who are not at the track. It is bet by downstate customers at New York Off-Track Betting parlors, people who are relatively unsophisticated handicappers. Their errors create generous odds that are virtual gifts to the cognescenti at the track.
Most professional come here with a confident expectation of profiting from the OTB bettors' largesse. But even if their hopes don't materialiaze, they will at least have the consolation of losing their money in the most pleasant possible environment.