SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- As surely as other pilgrims may seek to visit Jerusalem, every racing fan should aspire to see Saratoga.
The track's history and charm are much celebrated, though it could be reasonably argued that Hialeah, Santa Anita or Del Mar may be more pleasant places to go to the races. But what makes the racing at Saratoga utterly unique is the community that surrounds it.
When the last race is run in other places, a horseplayer leaves the track and returns to the real world. At Saratoga, everything else is an extension of the track. Go out for breakfast and everybody around you will be huddled over racing forms and talking about the day's card; go out for a drink at midnight and everybody will be conducting post-mortems on the results.
Little more than a decade ago, Saratoga's delights were known to a relatively small circle of regulars. Now it has been discovered by so many racing fans and vacationers that its facilities are being taxed -- and overtaxed. I am annually amazed by the number of Washington and Maryland race track regulars I see here.
The large numbers of people lured to Saratoga make it essential for a would-be visitor to do some advance planning. Therefore, we offer a brief Visitor's Guide to Saratoga:
When to Go: Ideally, of course, a racing fan should come here for the entire four-week season (today through Aug. 31 this year) and rent a house. But for people planning a short visit, Saratoga is far more enjoyable when the crowds are smaller. Weekdays are relatively civilized; the weekend of the Travers Stakes (Aug. 22) is miserable. The final week of the season is probably the best time to come.
How to Get There: USAir flies from Washington to Albany, which is about 30 minutes from Saratoga Springs. Its 8:10 a.m. one-stop flight will allow you to get settled in a hotel and get to the track by post time. (Regular round-trip fare is $286. The bargain fares that are obtainable only by the person who winds up sitting next to you come as cheap as $104, round trip).
Driving from Washington takes about eight hours.
Where to Stay: Long-term visitors usually rent houses here; renting homes for exorbitant prices is the major local industry. (Saratogians all take their vacations in August.) Hotels and motels aren't cheap, either. Rooms at the Holiday Inn are $175 a night during the season; more modest places can be found for $100. The classiest places in town are the historic Gideon Putnam and the new Ramada Renaissance.
Budget-minded travelers can find decent rooming houses near the track for as little as $35 a night. The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce operates an information booth on Broadway, the main drag, which keeps track of available rooms and will locate a room that meets a visitor's specifications.
Where to Sit: Seats for Saratoga go on sale by mail order on Jan. 1. Get your order postmarked at 12:01 a.m. and you'll probably get seats in Section W for most weekdays and be told, sorry, the Travers weekend is already sold out. One thousand seats are put on sale on the morning of each racing day but, essentially, getting seats at Saratoga is an illustration of freewheeling capitalism at work. Money talks. Ask any bartender or usher. They'll know where you can find tickets. If you are looking for a box or a good table in the dining room, it is helpful if your name is Maktoum al Maktoum.
Where to Eat and Drink: Breakfast at trackside is a grand Saratoga tradition. Although it may be a bit touristy, it's still fun, and an announcer identifies prominent horses, jockeys and trainers who pass by on the track. Order the locally grown Hand melons; this is what God intended the melon to taste like.
Saratoga Springs has plenty of excellent restaurants. I am an ardent partisan of Sam's Diner -- possibly the only American diner with valet parking. Sam's grilled sausage is the one sure-thing tip I can offer in Saratoga. The Wishing Well is also unfailingly good, and Eartha's Kitchen is chic and creative. Avoid all Chinese and Mexican restaurants.
My favorite bar in the world is Siro's. Virtually adjacent to the track, its outdoor bar plays host to large crowds immediately after the races, but throughout the evening till the wee hours it is filled with trainers, jockeys, track employes, fans and gambling degenerates.
British betting pools magnate Robert Sangster may drop in after the yearling sales to celebrate the purchase of a $1 million yearling. The winning trainer of the Travers might be drinking a champagne toast. And hard-core bettors will be describing the cruel tricks fate played on them that day. The conversation is invariably lively, and none of it will involve the Iran-contra hearings.
Amusements: Anyone who has had a tough day at the track need only wait a couple hours and take a short drive up Nelson Avenue for a chance to bail out at the local harness track, Saratoga Raceway. The quality of racing isn't terribly high, but it's a charming spot.
For those interested in nonparimutuel activities, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is the city's main attraction -- a combination Wolf Trap and Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Philadelphia Orchestra is based here during August; pop attractions include Huey Lewis, Tina Turner and Liza Minnelli. Washingtonians can check the full schedule and order tickets through Ticketron.
Saratoga Springs is filled during August with galleries displaying equine art. In fact, there may be almost as many artists here as horseplayers. Much of the work is schlock, but the best horse artist I have ever seen, Peter Howell, displays his work at the Criswick Gallery (134 Union Ave.). It would be helpful to hit a substantial Pick Six before shopping for a painting. For buyers who are more budget-minded, the superb racing photographs of Skip Dickstein are sold at the Saratoga Art Gallery on Broadway.
One of the most riveting spectacles here is the Fasig-Tipton Yearling Sales (Aug. 11-13). Visitors can walk around the grounds during the day and kibitz as the most prominent owners and trainers in the sport inspect these regal young horses. At night, the masses are permitted to watch discreetly as the wealthy spend millions with the waggle of a finger. The important thing to remember here is that if you see a friend in the pavilion, don't wave at him wildly while the bidding is in progress. This can make a Saratoga vacation even more expensive than usual.