Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Saratoga Springs

The weekend of the 19th was my very first in Saratoga Springs, and because several people have asked me for some details, I decided to post a few here.  While a weekend visit is not long enough to do much than scratch the surface of a place, it's still possible to do and learn a lot with proper planning.

I know the Saratoga Race Course is the main reason for visiting the area -- and two weekends ago was the opening weekend for the racing season -- but I spent my first day at Saratoga National Historic Park.  I admit I did not know that the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 was the turning point in the Revolutionary War, and according to information on the Park's website, Saratoga is "considered by many historians to be among the top 15 battles in the world." The visitor's center and the short film are interesting and well maintained, and the self-guided tour road is a great overview of the battlefield area and there are some beautiful vistas.

2013 is the 150th anniversary season at Saratoga Race Course, the nation's oldest racecourse and the "Queen Dowager of American tracks" according to Tim Mulligan, author of The Traveler's Guide to the Hudson River Valley: From Saratoga Springs to New York City, a terrific book I have used a lot (Black Dome Press).  As Mulligan also relates, three millionaire turf experts were involved in the development of the course: William Travers (a stockbroker), John Hunter (a famous sportsman of the day), and Leonard Jerome (Winston Churchill's grandfather).  The 2013 season is 40 days long, ending on Labor Day, and there is no racing on Tuesdays (Travers Day is Saturday, 24 August, which is an even bigger celebration than opening weekend).  I loved it from the moment I walked through the entrance turnstile -- a New Orleans-style combo was playing great music inside the entrance, people were partying at picnic tables, women were wearing outrageous hats (it was Hats Off Saratoga weekend, with a hat contest on Sunday), the wooden grandstand is really pretty, and there was a festive atmosphere throughout the whole place.  Again to quote Mulligan, "there is a sense of ceremony here, a long tradition that separates this course from all others."     

I felt fortunate to meet Michael Blowen, who ten years ago founded Old Friends, a non-profit organization that provides a safe home for retired Thoroughbreds. Blowen was a retired film critic for the Boston Globe when he first started talking about Old Friends, and most breeders and stud-farm owners in Kentucky thought he was crazy, or at least they didn't think it was ever going to get off the ground.  But when the news broke that Ferdinand -- 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, 1987 Horse of the Year -- died in a slaughterhouse, momentum began to build for an organization like Old Friends, and today there are more than 130 retirees and approximately 15,000 - 18,000 visitors at Old Friends headquarters in Kentucky.  Visitors are also welcome at the Cabin Creek Farm, a short drive from Saratoga Springs in Greenfield Center, New York.  Old Friends is the only Thoroughbred rescue/retirement facility that specializes in accepting stallions, and though not every horse in its fold is famous, every horse has a story to tell.  In the current (only the 2nd) issue of Old Friends magazine (produced and donated by Daily Racing Form), Blowen says the future goals of Old Friends are simple: "retire more Thoroughbreds by continuing what we're doing -- raising money to buy more space -- and inviting more fans to visit them every day.  We would have failed long ago without the support of the people who love these animals.  Personally, I give thanks every day to those who come to Old Friends and marvel at the indescribable majesty of the irreplaceable Thoroughbred."

The idea for Old Friends was hatched at Anne's Washington Inn in Saratoga Springs, which is where I stayed and where I met Michael. The Inn is a really nice bed-and-breakfast in a great location, and the guest rooms are Victorian-inspired but not overdone.  My husband and I had a room on the 3rd floor, where our four friends also had two other rooms (there are 4 rooms total on this floor and it's quite private -- good to know about for families or groups).  The large porch is a great place to hang out, and there are hanging flower pots with the most giant and healthy looking geraniums I've ever seen.  Innkeepers Joe and Kathy Bokan are two of the friendliest and most helpful people on the planet.

We had outstanding dinners at Boca Bistro (a member of the DZ Restaurants Group specializing in Spanish cuisine at 384 Broadway) and The Mouzon House (a farm-to-table in a former Victorian house at 1 York Street).   

A few noteworthy shops: Soave' Faire (449 Broadway) has a large selection of hats (we bought two) as well as postcards, books, souvenirs, stationery, art, etc.;  Putnam Market (435 Broadway) has an excellent and varied selection of sandwiches, salads, prepared foods, baked goods, snacks, and drinks and is positively the place for putting together provisions for a picnic (and right next door there is Putnam Wine, and there is also a market outpost at the race course); Swedish Hill Winery, of the Finger Lakes, has a storefront at 379 Broadway and tastings are offered (one or two are complimentary, and there's a small fee for more) and I bought bottles of Blue Waters Chardonnay and Marechal Foch (red); at Homessence (439 Broadway) I saw a wonderfully unique creation: actual windows -- the frame and the glass -- with bold, floral designs painted on the glass.  (That description doesn't really do justice to the windows, but trust me, they were neat.)

The Saratoga Springs Tourist Office has created a complimentary walking tour app and it's well done, taking in a number of architecturally noteworthy buildings in town.  Among my favorites are the Batcheller Mansion, the Adelphi Hotel, and the building at 1 Franklin Square that is now the wonderful home store, 23rd and Fourth

The gardens at Yaddo, a working artists' community founded by financier Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, are lovely and very much worth visiting (the photograph on the front of the Yaddo brochure above was taken by Rick Gargiulo).  The Trasks bought the property in 1881 and their young daughter suggested they name it Yaddo.  The main residence burned to the ground ten years later, and the Trasks built the mansion, completed in 1893, as it's seen today.  Tragically, the Trasks lost all four of their children, and in 1900 they created The Corporation of Yaddo.  Among the artists who've worked at Yaddo include Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O'Connor, and William Carlos Williams.

There is a Rose Garden on the lower level and a Rock Garden behind the pergola above. The four Italian marble statues on the east side of the Rose Garden depict the four seasons, and behind them is a statue of a youth, 'Christalan,' by William Ordway Partridge as a "memorial to the children of this house."  The fountain in the center of the Rose Garden is home to some very well-fed fish, and the sundial on the balcony is inscribed with words by the Trasks' friend, poet Henry VanDyke:

Hours fly, Flowers die, New days,
New ways pass by, Love stays.

Only the gardens are open to the public as the rest of the 400-acre estate is for the use of the visiting artists, and they are open from 8:00 a.m. to dusk everyday.  There is no admission fee, but the Yaddo Garden Association offers docent-led guided tours for $5 per person (tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00, and during the racing season tours are also offered on Tuesdays).  

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