Saratoga Race Course in the summer is searing, steamy, sweltering. Mop-your-brow hot. But the weather is merely a metaphor, the outward expression of the heat that’s generated by the power of the horses in residence during these six weeks.
Of the fevered passion that those horses engender as they embrace their power to captivate the human soul.
The physical atmosphere is roasting, but the racing action is hotter, still. A haze of lazy hangs over the renowned venue on Union Avenue–the kind of heat that settles into the bones and takes your breath away. Only the horses are capable of moving at breakneck speed, as they race not only toward immortality but straight to the core of every human within eyeshot…
This place may be managed by humans, but make no mistake–total ownership belongs to
the mighty equines who grace the stage of this, America’s oldest, most-photographed and surely most-treasured of race tracks.
Indeed, Saratoga Race Course is the oldest track in the United States: it was founded in August of 1863, one month to the day after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest conflict of the American Civil War. We don’t know if the founders envisioned that almost 150 years later, race fans would still flock to this place–but their venture became a dream shared by millions of horse lovers and wild-eyed gamblers over the course of a century-and-a-half.
This sport in this place is a community endeavor, as history is recounted and the future anticipated: it never occurs to anyone that a day may come when the Clubhouse is no longer here. Like the Pantheon, these historic buildings and sacred grounds have gone through changes and challenges–but never would it enter the human mind that it could be razed, replaced or just-plain no longer used.
Saratoga Race Course is America’s oldest racetrack–but more than that, she is the country’s oldest organized sporting venue of any kind. Unlike most stadia, she will not be replaced by a modern, “more efficient” model. The whim of a single man will not bring her to the ground, replaced by glass and steel, plastic chairs and artificial grass. The ghosts who walk the creaky wooden floors and hang from the slow, silent ceiling fans will never be evicted from their perches.
No, Saratoga Race Course is a monument to the founders, and to an era of elegance and heavenly architecture. More than this, the serene loveliness of the place reflects the beauty of the horses, themselves: eternal values such as these cannot be swept under the rug in the name of “progress,” for the values will live long after the modernists are gone. Saratoga Race Course is every bit as significant to the history of this country and the people who forged it as the Washington Monument–and more memories have been made here than on the lawn in D.C.
This magnificent place is as American as any other national historic site–but its appeal is international. NYRA (New York Racing Association) and the horsewomen and -men who flock here understand that a horse’s mettle is tested only when running against the best.
And the best may hail from the UAE, UK, France or Australia. Horse racing, unlike other sports, has a common language: the horses all whinney with the same accent, and their connections get that. Equines from around the world lead the charge–and their trainers, owners, jockeys and other staff come along for the ride.
Oh, so many people from the world over come here and find a memory to take home and live with them when the weather is cold, for this is the track where memories are made, fond remembrances that last a lifetime.
Virtually everyone has a tale to tell of their mother, father or favorite uncle sneaking them into a betting line; teaching them to read the Daily Racing Form when they were only five years old or introducing them to the first horse who nuzzled them, and forever sealed the deal.
Saratoga is that kind of place: a locus where innocence is rewarded and scamps make a fortune. It is older than the hills, but it shines like tomorrow’s misty sunrise.
So much could be written about the physical spaces that comprise the track: a tour might be conducted, of the building and grounds. Bullet-points, arrows and maps. But this otherworldly place transcends words, lists and maps. It defies genuine description, for what scribe can capture the eternal, adequately?
What words, in any language, can describe the place at which reality and mystery intersect?
Like a city set on a hill, Saratoga Race Course shines even on a rainy day, for her comeliness comes, as they say–from within. The foundation was laid in 1863 by men who saw an oasis–a place of refreshment on Life’s long journey–and generously they shared their dream with the world. Saratoga Race Course is America’s oldest sporting venue–but, having no genuine peer, she is her own species.
Dismay not, race fans, if you missed the 2011 race meet in Saratoga. The season has come
and gone. Sigh. But Saratoga Springs and Saratoga Race Course will be here in 2012: come back and make a memory. Deepen your relationships with your children or sit back and stare at the blue Adirondack sky. Paupers and kings, sheikhs and bug boys–all love this place, and come together in the most egalitarian sport in the world–there’s space for you, too. However you celebrate this great place–you are encouraged to find your own way. The horses will lead you there–they always do.
Many thanks to NYRA and Adam Coglianese.