SI Vault
William Nack
August 22, 1988
For 125 years, the crowds have flocked to Saratoga in August, drawn by the spring waters, the social whirl and, of course, the loveliest racetrack of them all
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August 22, 1988


For 125 years, the crowds have flocked to Saratoga in August, drawn by the spring waters, the social whirl and, of course, the loveliest racetrack of them all

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So Cornman lost his $400 win bet and the $80 exacta, but the Dawn o' The Dance-El Jefe exacta paid $192.40. His $20 bet on that earned him $1,924—considerably less than he would have pocketed had El Jefe won—giving him a profit for the day of $3,354. "At least he hung on for second," Cornman said. "I should be glad for small favors."

Moments later Cornman was back at the paddock to watch the horses saddle for the eighth.

Saratoga was never a place of leisure for Cornman—never a place to have an early dinner and relax, to kick back and swill cocktails like Subway Sam, watching the late people stroll by and in turn being watched by them. Indeed, there has always been a touch of the surreal about that twilight scene in Saratoga, with the crowds pouring out of the track at 6 p.m. and disappearing into the quaint 19th-century houses that they rent for the racing season—houses with spacious porches and columns, high-pitched roofs and ornamental gables, places that have balustrades and dormers and stained-glass windows.

"They are all like doll-houses," says trainer LeRoy Jolley. "You sit home and watch television and expect a big hand to come in the back door and start rearranging the furniture."

Liz Tippett lived in such homes in town for years, in one place or another, but last summer she divided time between her little farm east of Saratoga and her 70-foot boat, The Adventurer, on which she had arrived at a nearby Hudson River port after a sentimental journey from New York.

Mary Elizabeth Altemus Whitney Tippett was 81 last summer, and though she was mostly confined to a wheelchair, she made all the major balls and parties and even showed up one night at the yearling sales, wearing a fur coat. She also went to the track to watch her horses run. Sixty years before, she had been the belle of the ball in American high society, reputedly one of the most beautiful women in the land. "Smashing" is how an old acquaintance. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 75, described her.

Payne Whitney, one of New York's most prominent sportsmen, saw her one afternoon in a paddock at Saratoga and told his son, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, "That's the girl I want you to marry." They were wed on Sept. 5, 1930, and during most of the ensuing decade they spent August in Saratoga. In fact, they finally moved into one of the most spectacular estates in town—a big white wedding cake of a mansion with columns in front, broad lawns all around and its own private stables and training track adjoining the grounds of Saratoga race course. Living there, Liz Whitney came to represent, more than anyone else, the mystique of money and glamour that has surrounded Saratoga since the rich took over soon after the Civil War.

She did things with style and flair. Early one morning she showed up at the racetrack to watch the Whitney horses work, still dressed in the evening gown she had worn the night before and accompanied by a small kennel of dogs. "Why not?" she said last year. "We were out at the nightclubs till three or four in the morning. You'd go home, put a coat on, and go see your horses work."

That is not what she remembers best about her years at the Spa, however. For all the memories of childhood and horses and nights on the town, she recalls most vividly the day she walked out on her husband there. "He was too much a ladies' man for me. I'll tell you that," she said. "It was so stupid! But when you're young and you're sort of crazy about somebody and you see him out with Tallulah Bankhead and all those bums, I...I couldn't take it anymore, that's all. He brought Loretta Young to the house one weekend! But Tallulah was the worst. I just got tired of it. That's when I decided that Reno was the place for me."

Not knowing what to do or where to go, she look the advice of Harry Hopkins, one of Franklin Roosevelt's advisers, and sailed down the Hudson to seethe president at Hyde Park. "I look a boat down there," she said. "That was a vivid day, going down there and talking to Franklin for all that time. He knew what was going on with Jock. He told me, 'Don't worry. I'll get you a lawyer." Franklin was so nice. There are a lot of memories for me up here, some painful, quite a bit. But you have to do the best you can with what you've got left."

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