Olivia Laing

Saratoga Springs: the opposite of a one-horse town

Spa charm and racing thrills a train ride from New York City

Saratoga Springs: the opposite of a one-horse town
Text settings

In the sweltering heat of Manhattan, even the prairie plantings on the High Line looked dusty and tired. I usually steer clear of the city in summer, but this year I arrived in the middle of August. It was the night of the supermoon and I went down to the river to try to catch a breeze. On Pier 45, couples were dancing the tango, twisting and dipping as the music drifted out across the water. The sky turned pink and right on cue the moon rose luminous behind the towers.

The next morning, I caught the Amtrak Adirondack train from Penn station. Named after the mountain range it passes through, it runs up the Hudson and on to Montreal, calling at old industrial towns with names familiar from William Kennedy and Philip Roth novels: Albany, Poughkeepsie, Schenectady. People like to gripe about Amtrak, complaining about its lack of punctuality, but in all my trips I’ve never experienced a single hitch. Wi-Fi, a café car, comfortable seats, uniformed guards, huge windows: what more could you want?

The train cleaved to the broad, gleaming river, unrecognisable as the dirty waterway that separates Manhattan from New Jersey. People were fishing here and there, and rafts of lilies proliferated by the banks. It was a world of blue and green. Between cities, the hills were deeply forested, and drifts of fireweed and black-eyed Susan grew wild beside the track.

I got off at Saratoga Springs, which has been attracting summer pilgrims for more than 200 years. In the early 19th century the then-village was transformed into a European-style spa resort thanks to the presence of dozens of springs, among them Big Red, Peerless, Old Iron and Geyser, each with purportedly healing properties. Thousands of visitors came to take the cure, drinking and bathing in the mineral-rich water. Though the age of the grand spa hotel is long over, you can still immerse yourself at the venerable Roosevelt Baths, established in 1935 and beautifully restored in 2004.

These days, though, the real attraction is the races. Depending on who you talk to, the track at Saratoga Springs is either the oldest or the second-oldest in the US. The first race was held one month after the Battle of Gettysburg, and the track has been lightening American spirits and wallets ever since. The season lasts for 46 high summer days but the highlight is undoubtedly Travers Day, when the famous Travers Stakes is run. Also known as the Midsummer Derby, it’s a Grade 1 thoroughbred race with a purse of $1.25 million: an ideal opportunity for ogling people and horses alike.

Everywhere you go in Saratoga there are horses. Downtown is full of quirky fibreglass statues made by local artists, and you can hardly cross a road without encountering a string being ridden out, skittering and shying at the cars. On Travers Day, I walked to the track, stopping at the fence to watch an earlier race whip by, the horses drenched with sweat and jacketed in mud.

The mood inside was cheerful, the dress code wildly mixed. Some people were in sweatpants and jeans; others were dolled to the nines, the men in plaid blazers with cigars clamped between their teeth, the women in towering heels and magnificently barbaric feathered hats. The air smelled of smoke and fried chicken, and everywhere people were running to place bets.

I got talking with a man in the queue. He was insistent that I put my money on the favourite, Bayern at 2/1, but I went rogue with Viva Majorca, based almost entirely on the mint green of the jockey’s silks. Bet placed, I squeezed to the front by the winners’ enclosure. It had rained in the morning, and now the clouds were drifting east in tatters and streamers. The national anthem was playing. All around me grown men were standing with their fists clamped to their hearts, faces taut with emotion.

On the big screen, the horses were jostling into the gates. Then they were out and pounding widdershins around the track. Wicked Strong had the lead but in the last few seconds a beautiful chestnut came lunging out of nowhere and won by a nose, the proverbial photo finish. V.E. Day, out of English Channel. Would that I had been more patriotic.

Minutes later, he appeared in the winners’ enclosure, sides heaving, to be draped in a rug made of a thousand red and white carnations. The jockey was blowing kisses to the sky. No wonder: the odds were 15/1. It was one of the most exhilarating things I’d ever seen. Who needs a mineral bath? I was 12 bucks the poorer but all the same, I felt as if my blood had been replaced with champagne.

Olivia Laing is the author of The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink.