The Iroquois called this land Saraghoga, "place of the swift water," and it was around the sparkling mineral springs that the destiny of the town was ultimately shaped. In the 19th century the springs brought lame and dyspeptic tourists "looking for the cure" to Saratoga to drink the water and to bathe in it. To accommodate them, the big hotels arose, and to keep and entertain them, the gamblers came, men like the legendary John Morrissey, a dark-eyed, bare-knuckled, Tammany Hall politician and roughneck who had reigned for five years (1853-58) as the American heavyweight boxing champion. Morrissey built the first Saratoga racetrack, and after the Civil War he built and ran the town's first big casino.
Thus the Spa began selling more than the baths that sparkled and the water that tasted kind of funny. Indeed, in the 65 years that followed the end of the Civil War—except for two years. 1911 and 1912, when a moral fervor gripped New York and the state passed a law banning horse racing—Saratoga Springs was the biggest gambling resort in America. By the Gay Nineties it had become a summer mecca for rich planters from Georgia and the Carolinas and for bankers and brokers from New York.
One of them, the sportsman William Collins Whitney, helped make the town a playground for the Social Register set and for the idle rich, and for those who came floating in their wake—the big gamblers and the assorted brigands, the prostitutes and the pimps. Indeed, Saratoga may have been the place, in America at least, where simple extravagance first grew into wretched excess.
This is the Saratoga where James Todhunter Sloan, the American-born jockey who had gone to England in 1897 to ride for royalty—he was the Steve Cauthen of his day—returned to Saratoga to ride a Whitney horse and pulled up to the door of the United States Hotel with 10 trunks and two English valets. This is the town where Diamond Jim Brady, who wore diamond buttons even on his underwear, came every summer, squiring Lillian Russell to the racetrack and casinos. And this is where the newly renovated Grand Union, then the largest hotel in the world (824 rooms), reopened in 1874 with a dining hall so vast that it seated 1,400 people at a time. "The waiters had to run from the kitchen to the far end with the scrambled eggs or else they'd be cold when they got there," says Saratoga native George Bolster.
This is the town where men came to play the horses by day and the tables by night. Gambling was against state
law, but the gamblers took care of the cops and the pols, and the track and casinos grew fatter. Now and then there was an outbreak of moral outrage among the bluenoses of Saratoga, but the flow of gambling gold into the town every August was so rich and so steady that the work of the devil was usually happily condoned. Reggie Halpern, 82, a bookmaker in the '30s, still talks about the days when he used to travel to Saratoga on the Cavanagh Special, a train from Grand Central Station that was ridden almost exclusively by bookmakers.
When the train pulled into the old Saratoga station, hundreds of local citizens met the bookies as though they were conquering soldiers coming home from war. Speaking of another age, at times nostalgically, Halpern says, "We were greeted by the natives waving handkerchiefs; they held up boards that said: SINGLE ROOM $25 A MONTH. I stayed at the Grand Union—three dollars a night; lunch, 50 cents; dinner, a dollar—and we all walked to the racetrack in the afternoon. Al Jolson was always there, but he never performed at the clubs. He loved to gamble. Jack Benny used to like to sit on the porch of the Grand Union. Bing Crosby came up with Don Ameche. I remember Harry Richman, with his tails, cane and top hat, singing Puttin' On the Ritz. Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis played the Piping Rock Club."
Lewis, a nightclub comedian, was a legendary gambler known more for losing than for winning. A notorious horseplayer, he was fond of saying of Saratoga, "I like to come here every year to visit my money." They still tell the story of the morning when Lewis, who was staying in the United States Hotel in a room overlooking the railroad tracks, woke up early because a train groaned past his window, spouting steam and rattling the walls. Groggy, Lewis called the front desk and asked. "What time does this room leave for Chicago?"
Most of Saratoga's regular summer guests still come back each year to visit their money. Though the casinos have been closed since 1951, when state and federal probes revealed their ties to racketeers, they were not the only game in town when the last race was over. Fasig-Tipton, the thoroughbred auction house, has been selling yearlings at Saratoga since 1917, in what the firm's president, John M.S. Finney, once called "the biggest crapshoot." In this game, however, the shooter did not always crap out. In 1918, Sam Riddle gave $5,000 at Saratoga—a sizable sum for a yearling in those days—for an electrifying chestnut son of Fair Play. Riddle named the colt Man o' War. Today, in the course of a three-day select sale at its pavilion across from the racetrack, Fasig-Tipton continues to sell some of the most royally bred babies in America.
Last Aug. 11, the first night of the sale, 49-year-old Marvin Little Jr. waited through the final minutes of the biggest night of his life. Little had come to this sale every year since 1962, first as a groom mucking stalls for $7 a day, later as the manager of Newstead Farm in northern Virginia, long one of the leading consignors at Saratoga. Little had never brought a horse of his own to a Saratoga auction—the blood ran too rich for his income—but he had gambled and obviously scored the year before.
At a sale in Keeneland in January 1986, Little had stretched his resources and paid $58,000 for a 13-year-old broodmare named Fearless Queen. She was in foal to an untested stallion prospect. Dixieland Band, a stakes-winning son of the great Northern Dancer. "You know, $58,000 is a big hunk of money for somebody like me," Little says. "But I'm a gambler. The mare could have died at birth. The foal could have been crooked. But you have to take a shot. Life is a gamble."