08/08/2001 11:00PM

Space at the Spa just right


DEL MAR, Calif. - It might have been the heat, or it might have been the water. But I will swear on a stack of Fasig-Tipton catalogs that it was Howie Tesher I saw petting two llamas beneath the shade of an elm tree on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs the other day.

It was nice to see Howie. The llamas, well, I wrote that off to just another afternoon of sunstroke at the Spa. Dressed in the finest alpaca, they sauntered along, drawing crowds and window shopping for the perfect llama accessories. Tony and Linda Woods, proprietors of Saratoga Llamas, were happy to pose their animals for photos. Tesher leaned down and felt a tendon.

"How would you like to shoe one of those?" the trainer said, pointing to the lead llama's deeply cloven hooves.

By now such sights are hardly worth mentioning to those who make Saratoga a habit. The toughest transition for downstate immigrants is going from area code 516 to 518. But for this particular pilgrim from Del Mar, still innocent to the ways of the Deep East, a trip to Saratoga Springs in midsummer is definitely a leap through the looking glass.

It is fairly simple to keep in mind the difference between a lake and an ocean, a seltzer and a San Miguel, or a mosquito and a sand flea. There is also an alarming outbreak of middle-aged men wearing short pants in both resorts, so neither place is safe from the sight. And the restaurants of both the Springs and Del Mar spill their customers into the streets, daring them to linger just for the privilege of a place to sit and wait and pay.

Del Mar, despite its genial weather and casual dress code, moves way too fast. The seven-week season goes by like a video game. Saratoga, for some reason, feels more like a Sunday afternoon with the Times. Little wonder, though, for Saratoga Springs has a deeply committed relationship with the printed word.

Book stores abound, and not the least of them is the Lyrical Ballad, located on the same Phila Street so recently patrolled by llamas. Be prepared to spend at least an hour crawling through the corridors, lined floor to ceiling with volumes both new and previously owned. And do not be surprised if you grow faint at the sight of more horse racing books than should be allowed under one roof.

In such a climate, you would think the last thing the Saratoga regulars need is another chore on the reading list. You would be wrong. This summer marked the debut of "The Saratoga Special," a one-dollar bargain published primarily by the brothers Clancy, Joe and Sean. By this time next year, it might be an institution.

Their focus is narrow and purposeful. What happened yesterday? What might happen today? Check back with us tomorrow. Sean Clancy knows Saratoga like the back of his battered hands, which finally got a break after he retired from riding steeplechase horses last year. He stays on the ground now, but that doesn't mean he has forgotten what it feels like to win a big one, or lose a close one, and how to tell the story.

But reading is passive, an internal affair, whether nestled near the roses in Yaddo Park or camped on the sand on Moonlight Beach. The real difference between Saratoga and Del Mar is space, especially when it comes to the racing experience itself.

Del Mar is a claustrophobic place, wedged between Interstate 5 and the busy Amtrak line, bordered on the south by useless county fair structures and the north by a row of restaurants that aren't about to budge.

Saratoga sprawls and winds, like a vine, through the neighborhoods on both sides of Union Avenue as if it were there first, which it was. Handsome, unpretentious homes along Fifth Avenue back up to the full-sized Oklahoma training track, where you can practically wave to Jonathan Sheppard from your kitchen window. Chances are, he will wave back.

The barns near the main track at Saratoga were built with huge yards on all sides and single rows of stalls that have both doors and windows. What a concept. There are shade trees as old as California missions and room for horses to get silly or stupid without knocking down such tacky trademarks as the temporary pens and office trailers that clutter the space between Del Mar stables.

There is no substitute for space when it comes to the care and training of racehorses, which is why Saratoga gets it right and Del Mar has become desperate for land relief. There have been plans on the drawing board for a new Del Mar training track (the current one is barely a pony gallop), and now there is a movement to build a full-blown training center on the east side of Interstate 5, with some kind of corridor linking the site to the Del Mar property.

In addition, there are ongoing sentiments to beef up the San Luis Rey Downs training center, currently owned by Frank Stronach, and turn it into a magnet for major stables. This has good points, but convenience is not one of them, unless California horsemen are prepared to adopt a Payson Park-style mentality and train their horses more than 30 miles away from the action.

The message is clear. Racing requires more space than some places are prepared to provide. Saratoga, thankfully, is not one of them. Even if the air is hot and heavy, at least there is room to breath.