"This is my favorite place in the world," says David Cassidy, wreathed in a costly cologne, outside the paddocks at Saratoga Race Course. "I mean, on a day like today, where on Earth would you rather be?" Then Cassidy, who has owned racehorses since the 1970s—when he made his fortune playing Keith Partridge on The Partridge Family—gestures sweepingly with his right hand, as if throwing open a cape. "Look around," he says. "What's not to love?"
I love everything about Saratoga, the 139-year-old track in upstate New York. It is the Wrigley of raceways, or would be, if it weren't a half century older than the ballpark. I love that every two patrons entering its grounds carry a heavy cooler between them, so that they look like pallbearers at a midget's funeral. I love the press box, which installed a men's room in 1978 and a ladies' room in 1998, a 20-year interval in which women were asked, if you don't mind, to hold it a little longer. And I love that the only acknowledgment of a larger world beyond the track are the four sentences—out of 116 pages—that the Daily Racing Form devotes to nonequine news. On this day, opposite a long story on the forthcoming Best Pal Stakes, is a minuscule item headlined RUSSIAN COPTER CRASH KILLS 80.
Mayflies live for a single day, cherry blossoms bloom for but 72 hours, and Saratoga is open for racing only six weeks every summer, until Labor Day. Which is why, every August, the population of Saratoga Springs triples to 75,000 and local channel 12 is devoted entirely to horse racing—reverential, low-budget, oddly hypnotic coverage playing without end. "It's like Bulgarian cable television," says The New York Times racing writer Joe Drape, seated at the bar of the Spring Water Bet & Breakfast, a horse-player's hostel a block from the track. After a full day of racing in the East the TV above the bar is tuned to action from Del Mar near San Diego. (Hours after those races end, live racing from Australia is carried in some of New York City's Off-Track Betting parlors, whose clientele is every bit as male as the priesthood, and more celibate.)
In the 30-minute eternity between races at Saratoga, every walk of chain-smoking humanity watches televised simulcasts from Monmouth Park and Delaware Park while seated in row upon row of red, molded-plastic chairs bolted to the concrete behind the grandstand. It resembles the departure lounge at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Seating is almost impossible to come by, and when someone steals your chair here, he does so literally: A track employee, at an information kiosk, has her stool bicycle-chained to the table at which she sits. As for the unreserved seating along the rails, a courtly sign says: PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE BENCHES. It was necessitated, I like to think, by an unlucky bettor who figured that if he had to sleep on a park bench for the rest of his days, he might as well take one with him.
Make no mistake, races are especially hard to handicap at Saratoga, the Graveyard of Favorites. Man o' War suffered the only loss of his career here in 1919, beaten by Upset, who gave the upset its name. Hence the local lust for knowledge remains astonishing. "You're from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED?" says the high-school kid slinging wieners at the Nathan's Famous stand, eyeing the credential around a writer's neck. "Then maybe you know: Whatever became of Lemon Drop Kid?" ("He's a horse," you want to reply. "What could he possibly be doing now—selling real estate?" But you don't, because his enthusiasm is infectious.)
And so we stand in line at the ticket windows, the idle rich and the idle poor, poring over tout sheets and the DRF, intoxicated by tips like "intriguing" and "dangerous" and "has a shot"—the same vague, could-mean-anything adjectives found in horoscopes and weather forecasts and Magic 8 Balls. But I don't realize that until after the race, when my losing ticket has been torn into ticker tape and tossed to the wind. Oh, well. The track can take your money, but it cannot take your dignity.
Or can it? Moments later, realizing the ticket is a business expense, I am on all fours, gathering the pieces, a confetti that now fills my pockets. I feel like Rip Taylor. The pieces will be assembled, mosaic-style, and filed with my next expense report.
But profit is hardly the point of Saratoga. Take a walk around the grounds, past the paddocks, to the famous Big Red Spring, where water pours perpetually from three spigots in a fountain that resembles Caligula's birdbath. Though the water tastes heavily of minerals—imbibing it is like sucking on a rock—retirees in cataract-surgery sunglasses drink it down lustily from paper shot glasses of the kind you get at the dentist. To judge by their expressions, they are happy citizens of Horse-opolis, and the spring is a fountain of youth.
A gentle breeze sends pari-mutuel tickets lazily cartwheeling across the concourse and tickles the toupee of the railbird next to me. For the moment—with a Furlong Frank in one fist, an oil can of Foster's in the other and a "promising" horse in the seventh race—there really is no place on Earth I'd rather be.