It is a place where locals still line up at springs around town, dipping jugs of water under spigots to gather liquid they believe delivers beneficial minerals. It is not just Saratoga’s water, though, that heals whatever might ail you. A summer’s visit to the idyllic town in upstate New York can drain many of life’s pressures from humans and horses alike, and the season’s ending come Labor Day was a sobering reminder that good things eventually transition to memories.
This summer leaves plenty for the memory bank. For a village of just a few square miles, Saratoga provides room for all visitors to carve out individual plans and activities that bring a smile or a dollar. For our purposes, happily the town in July and August is first and foremost about horses. Banners hailing the historic racetrack fly from front yard poles, and placards warn New York’s governor to keep his hands out of racing’s till. Saratoga’s brightest star these days could well be retired race caller Tom Durkin, who is seemingly everywhere and known by all. He gives tours at racing’s Hall of Fame, officiates at charity events, and sells cars in his spare time.
A cavalcade of stars graced the starting gate all summer; some successful, others lending further certification that Saratoga is no sure thing even for the most impressive of résumés. Each weekend featured headliners befitting the top of the marquee. The brilliant undefeated filly Songbird laid waste to the curse of the favorites in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes (both gr. I). Both in her stretch run and then when paraded back up the track after the Alabama, Songbird brought the patrons to their feet in appreciation. Flintshire cut through the Saratoga lawn in thrilling fashion in the Longines Sword Dancer Stakes (gr. IT). Bob Baffert, who failed to win the Travers Stakes (gr. I) with a Triple Crown winner a year ago, returned undeterred and unleashed Arrogate to shatter a track record. One race later came the nerve-tingling return of Lady Eli after a year of recovery from laminitis. Her close-up defeat took nothing away from a feel-good story that hopefully continues.
The humans were equally impressive. The young phenom Chad Brown, born in Mechanicville just a few exits down the Northway and raised on horses in the picnic area adjacent to the track’s paddock, broke through to win his first Saratoga meet title and move closer to a cherished Eclipse Award. And brothers Jose and Irad Ortiz Jr. put on a riding clinic all summer, seemingly in a world all their own to finish one-two in the standings.
Personally, my two weeks there delivered me from a searing summer of Kentucky heat to the sweet smell of tall pine trees and welcome cool evening breezes. There was the joy etched across the proud face of Cot Campbell, whose concept of partnerships has done more good for the racing game than anything hatched by any other three men, upon his induction into the track’s Walk of Fame. There was the voodoo wall outside the barn of the mad Cajun Eric Guillot that carried the maiden Laoban to victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), leading to the homemade gumbo feast he and brother Chip threw at Clare Court on Travers Eve, a concoction that puts any restaurant entree to shame. And there was the fun-loving Australian trainer Brian Lynch, who sent out Oscar Performance to win a scorching turf test for 2-year-olds and then bought a few rounds of tequila in the Travers Bar right off the finish line “because it would be rude not to celebrate.”
The horse trailers head out now for points south, north, and west. Another season of memories remains within.
Chip Guillot and his homemade gumbo.