07/21/2011 11:45AM

Saratoga keeps traditional feel even as it modernizes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Made of green stall doors salvaged from old wooden barns, the Post Bar at Saratoga is emblematic of the track’s penchant for preserving its museum-like features through its 150-year history.

“All things change, of course, even Saratoga,” wrote Kent Hollingsworth. Red Smith said, “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.”

The beauty of Saratoga is that they’re both right.

As Saratoga Race Course opens its gates this weekend for its 143rd meeting, the 142nd at its current location at the intersection of East and Union Avenues, thousands will come expecting it to look just as they remember it: the tree-lined horse path, the century-old grandstand, the verdant backyard.

Many of those same people will also come looking for improvements, for the ways in which Saratoga has been upgraded, the ways in which the oldest sporting facility in the country has inched toward modernity.

They will find what they’re looking for.

My personal history at Saratoga Race Course began on Travers Day, 1979. I went with my brother, and we watched from the infield. Barely a teenager, I bravely bet $2 to show on General Assembly, the son of Secretariat.

I don’t remember much from that afternoon, other than cashing my whopping $3.60 ticket. Much of my knowledge of the track in that era comes from reading and from photographs, which tell me that in 1979, horses were still saddled under the trees, without fences or other barriers to separate them from eager fans. The backyard as we know it today didn’t exist. Just behind the clubhouse sat a saddling shed, constructed in the first years of the 20th century.

In its nearly 150-year history, Saratoga has undergone a number of significant renovations, but as “The Spa: Saratoga’s Legendary Race Course,” a new book by Paul Roberts and Isabelle Taylor, demonstrates in narrative and in images, today’s Saratoga Race Course is strikingly similar to its 19th century self, and that is due in no small part to the dedicated caretakers who recognized the value of this racing jewel.

Roberts and Taylor note of the major 1902 renovation under the stewardship of William C. Whitney, “Even at this relatively early stage in the course’s lifetime, [the track’s] sylvan setting was valued as a key ingredient of its charm and persona,” and indeed, part of Saratoga’s legacy and longevity lies in the good fortune of its natural landscape and its geography.

Shortly after the Greater New York Association (which became the New York Racing Association) was formed in 1955 to oversee Aqueduct, Belmont, Jamaica, and Saratoga, the group undertook major overhauls of two of its downstate tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont. Jamaica was closed, and according to the “The Spa,” Saratoga was left largely untouched, at least in part, Roberts and Taylor suggest, because of its remoteness.

That oversight was, in retrospect, a gift. Charles Hayward, president of the New York Racing Association, said, “They would have knocked Saratoga down and built a 1960s-style racetrack, which would have been horrible.”

For most of the nearly 150 years of Saratoga’s existence, those in charge of the track – the Saratoga Association in its early days and later the Greater New York Association and New York Racing Association – have had pretty much free rein to do what they have wanted. Thankfully, they have made some pretty good decisions.

As a Saratoga native, I took the track for granted when I was growing up. Its location, right in the middle of town, meant that it took little effort to get there. My friends and I could walk and bike there easily, and stopping by the track for a few hours was no different a summer activity from going to the park or one of the local pools. It was as familiar as any other part of the town, and there seemed little reason to cherish it.

Graduate school and a teaching career led me far from Saratoga, and for more than a decade, I didn’t set foot inside the track. Absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder; the track was one of many Saratoga places that I just didn’t go to anymore, like the bars I frequented on Caroline Street during college.

But in the summer of 2000, I came back. Licking the wounds of an unexpected summer breakup that had thrown a wrench into August vacation plans, I joined my brother and some friends on their annual “Run for the Tables” on Travers morning. And in one afternoon under the trees, accompanied by a cadre of long-time Saratoga friends, a cooler of beer, sandwiches, and a daylong show parlay, the broken love affair was replaced by one far sturdier.

My grown-up eyes showed me a Saratoga that my younger self had ignored: Nearly two decades of studying and teaching literature helped me to see for the first time the magnitude of Saratoga’s history, to appreciate that I was sitting in a place to which people had been coming to for over a century, that had somehow, perhaps miraculously, remained intact in a world in which history is little valued and often eviscerated in pursuit of financial gain.

Of course, some of Saratoga has disappeared. The practice of saddling horses under the trees ended in the mid-1980s, a sensible and necessary result of concerns about danger to spectators. The 1902 saddling shed was converted to betting windows and offices in the sixties, and the 1892 betting ring toward the top of the stretch is long gone.

But the grandstand built that year still exists. Some of the buildings on the site of that first meet in 1863, on the grounds of what is now the Oklahoma training track, date back to the mid-18th century and the trotting horse meets that inspired John Morrissey to bring Thoroughbreds to Saratoga in the summer.

Recent upgrades honor the track’s past while adding essential amenities. The Shake Shack and Blue Smoke restaurants offer food upgrades that track visitors had been seeking for years. The modern silver façades, jarring architecturally, are soothed by their proximity to The Post bar, constructed of green stall doors salvaged from Saratoga’s old, wooden barns.

The white plastic fencing that for decades lined the horse path and walking ring has been replaced by wooden rails, painted white and inspired by fences at trainer Shug McGaughey’s barn at Oklahoma.

A year ago, the New York Racing Association installed an eighth pole just inside the main Union Avenue gate; while the pole is from the old Aqueduct and commemorates the 1920 Dwyer run at that track, it was placed at Saratoga, according to NYRA chief operating officer Hal Handel, because of the importance of racing history at the Spa.

Andy Serling, NYRA’s race analyst, grew up in Saratoga and visited the track for the first time in 1974. Like many of us, he waits all year for opening day, and he recently tweeted, “See you in the best place in the world next week.”

“I’m so happy to still have Saratoga that I don’t look back and regret what’s changed,” he said at the track’s recent open house. “The essence of Saratoga is as good as it ever was. It never disappoints.”

Each year when I step foot on the grounds for the first time, I stop inside the gates and I look around. I look at the trees and the lawn. I look at the old grandstand, and the perfect joy of it overwhelms me, the joy of being back in this place, aware of the need to savor every moment of the all-too-brief time that we have to enjoy it.

In his undated column written decades ago, Hollingsworth wrote about what Saratoga used to be, acknowledging what had been lost.

“All things change,” he observed, “Saratoga perhaps more slowly than most.”

He went on, “Unchanged, however, is the place to be in August.”