Last September, I posted this on this ‘site. My wrap-up for the Saratoga season. But the season is about to begin again, and I feel compelled to remind myself (and maybe you) why Saratoga–America’s oldest and most revered race course–is still the epicenter of magic.
The horses are here. The horses’ humans are here. The fans –tourists and locals, alike–are here. The Sallee Horse Vans are pulling off at Exit 14–construction, still, and all–and threading their ways down Union Avenue.
All that’s necessary now is to wait out a couple of days–I’m sure that your calendar is marked, you’re Xing off the days-and Sam the Bugler will be back at his station, calling us all to the post…
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 run, not only toward immortality, but straight to the core of every human within eyeshot. This place may be managed by people, 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. (I feel a special understanding of this concept, as my Great-Great Grandpa Charlie Gardner was in that battle in Pennsylvania. One of the few who didn’t die, he was shot in the hand and wound up in a hospital in New York City. I’m sure he’d rather have been in Saratoga, betting on the ponies.)
We don’t know if the founders envisioned that almost 150 years later, race fans still would 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: never does it occur to anyone that a day may come when the Clubhouse no longer stands. Like the Pantheon, this historic building and these 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. 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 not 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 Lincoln Memorial–and more memories have been made here than on the Great Lawn in D.C.
So many people, not just from America but from around the world, come here to 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 sketched out, 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 a 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.
Welcome, race fans, to Saratoga Springs and to Saratoga Race Course. Make a memory, deepen your relationships with your children or sit back and stare at the blue Adirondack sky. However you celebrate this great place–you are encouraged to find your own way. The horses will lead you there–they always do.
PHOTO CREDIT: Thank you to NYRA and Adam Coglianese.