'Toga Party

September 01, 2002

"This is my favorite place in the world," says David Cassidy,
wreathed in a costly cologne, outside the paddocks at Saratoga
Race Course. "I mean, on a day like today, where on Earth would
you rather be?" Then Cassidy, who has owned racehorses since the
1970s--when he made his fortune playing Keith Partridge on The
Partridge Family--gestures sweepingly with his right hand, as if
throwing open a cape. "Look around," he says. "What's not to
love?"

I love everything about Saratoga, the 139-year-old track in
upstate New York. It is the Wrigley of raceways, or would be, if
it weren't a half century older than the ballpark. I love that
every two patrons entering its grounds carry a heavy cooler
between them, so that they look like pallbearers at a midget's
funeral. I love the press box, which installed a men's room in
1978 and a ladies' room in 1998, a 20-year interval in which
women were asked, if you don't mind, to hold it a little longer.
And I love that the only acknowledgment of a larger world beyond
the track are the four sentences--out of 116 pages--that the
Daily Racing Form devotes to nonequine news. On this day,
opposite a long story on the forthcoming Best Pal Stakes, is a
minuscule item headlined RUSSIAN COPTER CRASH KILLS 80.

Mayflies live for a single day, cherry blossoms bloom for but 72
hours, and Saratoga is open for racing only six weeks every
summer, until Labor Day. Which is why, every August, the
population of Saratoga Springs triples to 75,000 and local
channel 12 is devoted entirely to horse racing--reverential,
low-budget, oddly hypnotic coverage playing without end. "It's
like Bulgarian cable television," says The New York Times racing
writer Joe Drape, seated at the bar of the Spring Water Bet &
Breakfast, a horseplayer's hostel a block from the track. After
a full day of racing in the East the TV above the bar is tuned
to action from Del Mar near San Diego. (Hours after those races
end, live racing from Australia is carried in some of New York
City's Off-Track Betting parlors, whose clientele is every bit
as male as the priesthood, and more celibate.)

In the 30-minute eternity between races at Saratoga, every walk
of chain-smoking humanity watches televised simulcasts from
Monmouth Park and Delaware Park while seated in row upon row of
red, molded-plastic chairs bolted to the concrete behind the
grandstand. It resembles the departure lounge at Indira Gandhi
International Airport. Seating is almost impossible to come by,
and when someone steals your chair here, he does so literally: A
track employee, at an information kiosk, has her stool
bicycle-chained to the table at which she sits. As for the
unreserved seating along the rails, a courtly sign says: PLEASE
DO NOT REMOVE BENCHES. It was necessitated, I like to think, by
an unlucky bettor who figured that if he had to sleep on a park
bench for the rest of his days, he might as well take one with
him.

Make no mistake, races are especially hard to handicap at
Saratoga, the Graveyard of Favorites. Man o' War suffered the
only loss of his career here in 1919, beaten by Upset, who gave
the upset its name. Hence the local lust for knowledge remains
astonishing. "You're from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED?" says the
high-school kid slinging wieners at the Nathan's Famous stand,
eyeing the credential around a writer's neck. "Then maybe you
know: Whatever became of Lemon Drop Kid?" ("He's a horse," you
want to reply. "What could he possibly be doing now--selling
real estate?" But you don't, because his enthusiasm is
infectious.)

And so we stand in line at the ticket windows, the idle rich and
the idle poor, poring over tout sheets and the DRF, intoxicated
by tips like "intriguing" and "dangerous" and "has a shot"--the
same vague, could-mean-anything adjectives found in horoscopes
and weather forecasts and Magic 8 Balls. But I don't realize that
until after the race, when my losing ticket has been torn into
ticker tape and tossed to the wind. Oh, well. The track can take
your money, but it cannot take your dignity.

Or can it? Moments later, realizing the ticket is a business
expense, I am on all fours, gathering the pieces, a confetti that
now fills my pockets. I feel like Rip Taylor. The pieces will be
assembled, mosaic-style, and filed with my next expense report.

But profit is hardly the point of Saratoga. Take a walk around
the grounds, past the paddocks, to the famous Big Red Spring,
where water pours perpetually from three spigots in a fountain
that resembles Caligula's birdbath. Though the water tastes
heavily of minerals--imbibing it is like sucking on a
rock--retirees in cataract-surgery sunglasses drink it down
lustily from paper shot glasses of the kind you get at the
dentist. To judge by their expressions, they are happy citizens
of Horse-opolis, and the spring is a fountain of youth.

A gentle breeze sends pari-mutuel tickets lazily cartwheeling
across the concourse and tickles the toupee of the railbird next
to me. For the moment--with a Furlong Frank in one fist, an oil
can of Foster's in the other and a "promising" horse in the
seventh race--there really is no place on Earth I'd rather be.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE

Saratoga is the Wrigley of raceways--or would be, if it weren't
a half century older than the ballpark.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)