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Horse heaven

“Move yer bloomin’ legs!” bellowed Eliza at the Ascot races in My Fair Lady. The rush of keen, galloping horses does draw some yells and hoots from even the most refined spectator. And Saratoga’s historic racetrack is plenty refined—not snooty, but clean, proper, wholesome, and charming. At least for now. The track operator’s fifty-year contract is expiring and New York State is deciding if a different operator will run it in future. So if you want a traditional Saratoga experience, better grab it now.

First rule: Don’t watch the TV monitors in the front yard. Spend $2 to enter the upstairs “clubhouse”—it doesn’t buy you a seat in the grandstand, but you can settle on a bench between races and then stand behind the seats for a clear view from a raised (and roofed) vantage point. Or go ahead and picnic out front, but get up and walk through the grandstand to watch each race in person at the rail. There at trackside is the real deal: thundering hooves and flying dirt, the grace and power of the jockeys, the focused instinct of the thoroughbreds, muscles rippling, tails bannered. Betting—even winning—is a bland incidental compared to the breathtaking glory of a horse in motion.

Rule number two: Don’t miss the unique Saratoga experience of getting really up close and equine. Between races, loiter out front near the crushed-stone path where stablehands lead the naked horses between barn and track. When they come by, a guard simply holds up a thin chain to keep the public from crossing; you can stand within arm’s reach as magnificent horseflesh strides by. Also visit the paddock where the jockeys mount before each race; the fence doesn’t allow the public quite as close, but it’s still a fine, fun spectacle.

Race fan or not, be sure you (and the kids) attend one of the early-morning workouts. This can be more entertaining, because it has fewer lulls, than the actual races. And it’s free: you get your $10 parking fee back if you leave before 10 a.m. Arrive when you like and sit in the governor’s box or other exclusive seating at the very front of the clubhouse. The track would like to sell you a sit-down breakfast on the “patio,” but you can bring your own food into the boxes. It’s not very crowded, an announcer unobtrusively points out who’s who, and the atmosphere is mellow and casual. You can see exercise riders perched alongside famous jockeys, trainers making cell calls from the backs of their own horses, and punters scouting the competition. The horses companionably breeze along, or sometimes sprint for the trainer’s stopwatch, and everything begins to glisten as the sun climbs higher. (In fact, if you hate squinting, bring a visor.)

Also in the mornings, free guided tours of the backstretch start every few minutes, last an hour or so, and explain behind-the-scenes track operations for greenhorns and seasoned equestrians alike. You get to see—and ask questions about—stables and grooms’ quarters (which offer distressingly similar housing standards for both species), saddles and bridles and horseshoes, hay and grain, bedding and manure, and the how-to’s of training two-year-olds for the starting gate.

Bugles and bells, wealthy horse owners, the box-seat dress code—all the traditions and trappings do give a festive sparkle to an afternoon at the races. But don’t neglect the track’s simpler, earthier charms some velvety August morning. —SR