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Highbrows and Lowbrows Share This August Retreat : America's Oldest Track

August 25, 1985|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — It is Saratoga Springs, at least 40 years ago, and Joe Frisco is trying to save a buck. It is always a good idea to try saving a buck here, where since 1863 slow horses have been sending many a bettor home before his time.

Frisco and a friend, having spent an otherwise pleasant afternoon betting heavily on slow horses, are checking in at a hotel near the race track. They register as a single, though no one, not even the housekeeper, is ignorant of their scheme.

As Frisco and his crony enter their room, the phone rings.

"Mr. Frisco, this is the front desk," says a stiff voice, which would have belonged to Franklin Pangborn if it were a movie. "We're aware that you have a companion in your room, and be assured that you'll be paying the double rate for the length of your stay."

Joe Frisco always stuttered. "Th-th-th-that's a-a-a-all r-r-r-right," he said. "B-b-b-but w-w-w-will y-y-y-you d-d-d-do m-m-m-me a f-f-f-favor?"

"What's that?" the man at the desk asked.

"W-w-w-would you s-s-s-send up an ex-ex-ex-extra B-b-b-bible?"

The Daily Racing Form becomes the Bible for 24 days each August in this sleepy upstate town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, about 170 miles from Broadway.

Saratoga's population, about 25,000 the rest of the year, grows to 50,000 in August. People come here to visit America's oldest race track, sample the yucky mineral waters and occasionally rub elbows with the swells from the horsey set. Hotels are sold out at shamelessly inflated prices, dinner reservations become scarce at the town's finer restaurants and some of the country's best thoroughbreds run in some of the sport's most prestigious races.

What is Saratoga in August? Some say it is a state of mind. Locals refer to it as the fifth season.

For successful horseplayers, it is the millenium, a place to cash tickets, party at a mellow, cantering pace and forget the hurly-burly of city life. Saratoga is as far from Aqueduct as the hills of Rome are from Hoboken. The late Joe Palmer, a legendary turf writer, once said: "A man who would change Saratoga is the kind who would stir champagne."

Everywhere you turn, there is a ghost to be reckoned with:

--Gen. John Burgoyne's redcoats surrendered to the Continental army near here in a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

--Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell played roulette, when it was legal, in the Canfield Casino near the track.

--Edgar Allen Poe found the muse at Yaddo, a Saratoga artists' colony.

--Mark Twain played billiards in Saratoga, and actually liked the place. But even Saratoga can't win them all. A young Henry James preferred Newport, R.I., because it was "substantial and civilized."

When the race track first opened, the project of New York stockbroker William R. Travers and John Morrissey, a gambler, bare-knuckle boxer and Tammany Hall hack, there was the fear that the Union army might have first call on all the horses. But Travers and some friends provided a couple of dozen runners for two races a day during a four-day "season." Lizzy W., a filly ridden by a one-eyed jockey, beat a colt in a three-mile test and Saratoga was off to the races.

A customer in a Saratoga restaurant: "Waiter, didn't I give you a dollar when I came in?" Waiter: "Yes, sir." Customer: "Yet you've kept me waiting here for three-quarters of an hour." Waiter: "That's just to show that I can't be bribed, sir."

No matter how hard they try, the horses at Saratoga aren't more famous than the people who watch them. This season, Ginger Rogers, Albert Finney and David Cassidy were hanging around, refreshing faces to go with the legion of perennials--Nelson Bunker Hunt, Marylou Whitney, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur and Liz Tippett, who gads about in a purple Rolls-Royce.

These are the kinds of people who don't blanch when Allen Paulson, an untitled racing upstart who made his fortune building and selling airplanes, spends several million dollars on yearlings at the annual Saratoga sale.

The horse auction, polo games, a dog show and a round robin of exclusive parties are diversionary tactics for the privileged rich. As society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker might say, the horses can only run so many races and then these people have to do something.

Many of the affairs raise money for charity. Marylou Whitney, whose husband raced several champions, including Silver Spoon, the filly who won the 1959 Santa Anita Derby, seems to chair two galas to anyone else's one. This year she was in the spotlight for an additional reason: A local radio station sponsored a Marylou Whitney look-alike contest.

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