In August all Thoroughbred racing in New York moves out of the city, north to Saratoga, so the only "wheel in town" is 190 miles out of town. If you drive 70 mph in a big car at 3 o'clock in the morning to beat the traffic, you can make it easily in three hours as advertised. For me the trip was over five hours.
Saratoga in 1966 was not Saratoga of the '20s. The fine hotels—the United States, Congress Hall, Grand Union, the American-Adelphi—all were gone or unrecognizable. The gambling casinos had been closed for years; the "fast" women were either spoken for or dead; the spas barely believed in themselves anymore. No, Saratoga in 1966 was not the Saratoga of the '20s—it was not even the Saratoga of the '50s. In the '50s the shopping center hadn't yet been built, or the motels on Broadway. The grandstand at the track hadn't been refurbished yet, nor thousands of new seats added to handle the large crowds up from New York City. The superhighway extension from Albany didn't exist. And the magnificent Saratoga Performing Arts Center hadn't even been foaled.
Convention Hall had seen too many wrestling matches, pathetic prizefights, rock 'n' roll shows, yet Saratoga in 1966 remained an estimable place in August. It is still deciduous, and when it blooms in August there is still the same sort of pure excitement that has always been generated by racing. The repairs and additions to the grandstand, the fresh paint, the new escalators, the greatly emphasized publicity of the meeting back in New York City, none of these had destroyed the essence of the finest racing in the U.S. No, the track and the town were not quite what they had been, but the essence had remained pure.
Woodlawn Park, near the center of the village, was lush with willows and grassy knolls that overlap a placid lake. The rustle of leaves, the buzz of insect and chirp of bird, these are in this ancient park, Muses for the fanciful handicapper. Pull out the day's card and search for inspiration; generations of fanciful handicappers have since Aug. 3, 1863.
The streets of the town are well-shaded and broad, with wide stretches of lawn between the sidewalks and the curbs. Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady had only just gone on ahead. The houses are Victorian—wooden, stately, many-gabled. In August, Saratoga really smells. A delicious combination of ripe land odor mixes with rich water vapor, minted hedges, perfumed ladies, horse liniment and road apples. There's no other smell in America quite like it.
"The race is not always to the swift," my mother told me as a child, quoting an unfamiliar source. The drivers behind me on the road to Saratoga didn't share her wisdom. When those cars that had been pinched off cut into the passing lane and roared by, women glared, children stuck out tongues and men made gestures I chose (and still choose) not to interpret literally. Then both lanes became jammed and traffic crept.
A black limousine rolled alongside. Windows closed. Air-conditioned. It hung next to me for a moment, and then a window slipped down with automatic stealth. A pasta face came out. "Dis da right way for da track?"
I don't know what comes over me when I speak to this type, but I slip easily into a low-down Brooklynese. "Yeah," I said.