Highbrows and Lowbrows Share This August Retreat : America's Oldest Track

Times Staff Writer

It is Saratoga Springs, at least 40 years ago, and Joe Frisco is trying to save a buck. It is always a good idea to try saving a buck here, where since 1863 slow horses have been sending many a bettor home before his time.

Frisco and a friend, having spent an otherwise pleasant afternoon betting heavily on slow horses, are checking in at a hotel near the race track. They register as a single, though no one, not even the housekeeper, is ignorant of their scheme.

As Frisco and his crony enter their room, the phone rings.

"Mr. Frisco, this is the front desk," says a stiff voice, which would have belonged to Franklin Pangborn if it were a movie. "We're aware that you have a companion in your room, and be assured that you'll be paying the double rate for the length of your stay."

Joe Frisco always stuttered. "Th-th-th-that's a-a-a-all r-r-r-right," he said. "B-b-b-but w-w-w-will y-y-y-you d-d-d-do m-m-m-me a f-f-f-favor?"

"What's that?" the man at the desk asked.

"W-w-w-would you s-s-s-send up an ex-ex-ex-extra B-b-b-bible?"

The Daily Racing Form becomes the Bible for 24 days each August in this sleepy upstate town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, about 170 miles from Broadway.

Saratoga's population, about 25,000 the rest of the year, grows to 50,000 in August. People come here to visit America's oldest race track, sample the yucky mineral waters and occasionally rub elbows with the swells from the horsey set. Hotels are sold out at shamelessly inflated prices, dinner reservations become scarce at the town's finer restaurants and some of the country's best thoroughbreds run in some of the sport's most prestigious races.

What is Saratoga in August? Some say it is a state of mind. Locals refer to it as the fifth season.

For successful horseplayers, it is the millenium, a place to cash tickets, party at a mellow, cantering pace and forget the hurly-burly of city life. Saratoga is as far from Aqueduct as the hills of Rome are from Hoboken. The late Joe Palmer, a legendary turf writer, once said: "A man who would change Saratoga is the kind who would stir champagne."

Everywhere you turn, there is a ghost to be reckoned with:

--Gen. John Burgoyne's redcoats surrendered to the Continental army near here in a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

--Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell played roulette, when it was legal, in the Canfield Casino near the track.

--Edgar Allen Poe found the muse at Yaddo, a Saratoga artists' colony.

--Mark Twain played billiards in Saratoga, and actually liked the place. But even Saratoga can't win them all. A young Henry James preferred Newport, R.I., because it was "substantial and civilized."

When the race track first opened, the project of New York stockbroker William R. Travers and John Morrissey, a gambler, bare-knuckle boxer and Tammany Hall hack, there was the fear that the Union army might have first call on all the horses. But Travers and some friends provided a couple of dozen runners for two races a day during a four-day "season." Lizzy W., a filly ridden by a one-eyed jockey, beat a colt in a three-mile test and Saratoga was off to the races.

A customer in a Saratoga restaurant: "Waiter, didn't I give you a dollar when I came in?" Waiter: "Yes, sir." Customer: "Yet you've kept me waiting here for three-quarters of an hour." Waiter: "That's just to show that I can't be bribed, sir."

No matter how hard they try, the horses at Saratoga aren't more famous than the people who watch them. This season, Ginger Rogers, Albert Finney and David Cassidy were hanging around, refreshing faces to go with the legion of perennials--Nelson Bunker Hunt, Marylou Whitney, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur and Liz Tippett, who gads about in a purple Rolls-Royce.

These are the kinds of people who don't blanch when Allen Paulson, an untitled racing upstart who made his fortune building and selling airplanes, spends several million dollars on yearlings at the annual Saratoga sale.

The horse auction, polo games, a dog show and a round robin of exclusive parties are diversionary tactics for the privileged rich. As society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker might say, the horses can only run so many races and then these people have to do something.

Many of the affairs raise money for charity. Marylou Whitney, whose husband raced several champions, including Silver Spoon, the filly who won the 1959 Santa Anita Derby, seems to chair two galas to anyone else's one. This year she was in the spotlight for an additional reason: A local radio station sponsored a Marylou Whitney look-alike contest.

Amazingly, 50 people entered, not all of them women. Since Marylou had appeared at the dog show dressed as Little Bo Peep, originality counted, even if sanity didn't. The winner, wearing a blonde wig, a hat the size of an automobile tire and arriving in a fur-lined sleigh, had a choice of two prizes, a trip to the Breeders' Cup races at Aqueduct Nov. 2 or a trip to Los Angeles for a Bruce Springsteen concert. She chose Springsteen. Doesn't everybody these days?

Dialogue between two dowagers at Saratoga's National Museum of Racing: First dowager (disturbed): "Do you know that Elizabeth Taylor's (racing) colors are on display?" Second dowager (indignant): "Yes, and I'm going to talk to Alfred (G. Vanderbilt) about that."

For those Saratoga habitues who aren't invited to a Whitney party, or who can't afford the $250-a-night suites at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel, there is Siro's, a restaurant and bar only about 100 yards from the track. Once a private home, the place was popularized by the late Jimmy Siro, a maitre d' at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in Manhattan.

Outside, on the lawn, and inside, in the smoky front bar, racetrackers rehash the day's results and consider the next day's possibilities. All that has been missing in recent years has been Ida Hill, a Siro's fixture who entertained at the piano bar with welcome, unending medleys from Gershwin and Cole Porter. Hill, however, has not abandoned Saratoga. She was heard this season at the Court Bistro, a small, busy restaurant near the center of town.

Several years ago in Siro's, a reporter asked trainer Laz Barrera an impossible question--to name the best race he ever saw at Saratoga.

There is, of course, no answer. Saratoga's tradition is built on more than just longevity. It has come from more than a century of splendid racing, upsets, controversies and outcomes that determined champions.

Six of the races at Saratoga have each been run 68 times or more, topped by the 116-year-old Travers and the 105-year-old Alabama Stakes.

The Travers, named after one of the track's founders, frequently brings together many of the best 3-year-olds after they've run in the Triple Crown races.

By itself, the Travers would earn Saratoga its designation as "the graveyard of favorites." This year, Chief's Crown won the Travers, becoming the first favorite to run first in the stake since 1975.

In '82, the race pitted the three Triple Crown winners--Kentucky Derby champion Gato Del Sol, Preakness victor Aloma's Ruler and Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo--and the winner was none of the above. The laurels went to Runaway Groom, a colt whose trainer, John DiMario, spent several nights sleeping in his broken-down car at the track because he couldn't find a room.

Pleasant Colony, winner of the Derby and the Preakness, bit the dust in the '81 Travers, losing to 24-1 longshot Willow Hour. That sort of Travers nonsense is not a recent phenomenon. In 1930, Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown, but was knocked off here in the mud by Jim Dandy, who won by eight lengths at 100-1 odds.

The upset of upsets, however, was registered by a horse named, appropriately, Upset. He handed Man o' War the only defeat of his career in the 1919 Sanford Stakes. And Secretariat's loss in the '73 Whitney Handicap was especially startling, too, since he was beaten by Onion, a status-seeker from the claiming ranks.

Like Secretariat and Gallant Fox, Affirmed was another Triple Crown champion who suffered the Saratoga curse, losing the '78 Travers to Alydar on a stewards' disqualification.

Disqualifications at Saratoga are as common as the famous trainers who stop by the outdoor shoeshine stand near the jockeys' room. Jatski was moved up to the win spot after Run Dusty Run caused interference in the '77 Travers. Rockhill Native lost the '79 Hopeful Stakes to J.P. Brother on a foul.

Renting homes for the season in Saratoga can be just as expensive as taking a hotel room. And then there are the hidden costs. This year, for instance, trainer John Veitch's Jaguar was stolen, although it turned up, undamaged, a couple of days later. Jockey Robyn Smith reportedly wrecked her ritzy sports car a few years back when she crashed into a tree. One year, there was an outbreak of burglaries and a horse insurer's wife lost more than $100,000 in jewels. One of the burglary victims that year was trainer LeRoy Jolley.

Policeman: "Ever been robbed in Saratoga before?" Jolley: "Yeah. The day I rented this house."

The Affirmed-Alydar Travers was viewed by 50,359 fans, a track record that was threatened this year when 45,667 watched Chief's Crown win. Seating, which totals more than 16,000, is limited for the general public, because the bluebloods have most of the box seats and dining room tied up for lifetimes.

Columnist Tom Cunningham of the Albany Times complains periodically but the track ignores him, and the fans don't seem to mind. They are content to wander the infield, where a canoe is painted each year with the colors of the owner of the Travers, and to picnic out behind the rickety wooden stands, where cloggers dance and strolling musicians entertain.

Horses are saddled under elm trees, only an arm's length from the fans. Weight-conscious jockeys walk through the crowd to reach their mounts, passing temptingly close to a carving board filled with the big deli sandwiches that they can seldom eat.

A broken-down horseplayer was so desperate at Saratoga that he went door to door in a rich neighborhood, looking for work. At one house, he was asked to paint the porch and was told that the materials were in the garage. After finishing up, the horseplayer rang the doorbell to collect his money. "By the way," he said, "I know you said Porsche, but all I found in the garage was a Ferrari so I painted that."

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