Saratoga: The View from the Press Box, 101 Quotes on the Spa

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence

With the 2015 Saratoga racing season about to get underway, I thought it was time to review what sportswriters have said about Saratoga over the past century. I have tried to use quotes from some of the most famous general sportswriters of the time as well as quotes from those writers who specialized in covering horse racing.

I also this was appropriate to start the quotes with Joe Palmer and Red Smith. Both wrote for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1940’s and 1950’s and probably formed the greatest single entry of writers on one paper regularly writing about horse racing.

Unfortunately, there are no quotes from Grantland Rice, who was arguably the most famous sportswriter of the 20th century. Rice was a racing enthusiast but seemed to prefer Sunshine Park (now Tampa Bay Downs) above all other tracks. Nonetheless, Frank Graham’s quote (#26) is supposed to be his part of a conversation with Rice.

Joe Palmer

  1. “Really hardly any price is too great to pay for upstate Saratoga, where the leisured grace of racing as it used to be still lingers.” (8/4/47)
  2. “Saratoga is tranquil and ageless, and in time this slows down the tempo and you begin to get to places outrageously late and to put off till tomorrow and generally not to care a curse. This is known as Saratoga slow fever, and anyone affected with it is likely to have recurrent attacks, each August.” (8/11/47)
  3. “Saratoga represents a reaffirmation of racing as enjoyment, of the original forces which first called it into being. You come away feeling that, well, there is going to be a good deal of concrete and gravel for a goodish while, but afterward there will be Saratoga again with its shaded paddocks. And if it ever comes to the point that there will be no Saratoga again, I think there will be some important dispersal sales in the fall.” (8/8/49)
  4. “Saratoga is still the focal point of racing in New York, at least, and if it goes something dies.” (This Was Racing)
  5. “Saratoga has kept on with its quiet ways, and its reward is that a little of the old time yet lingers. A man who would change it would stir champagne.” (This Was Racing)
  6. “I rather think that the charm of Saratoga is that it represents, to those to whom racing is a way of life, something to which they may at need return. It is, of course, the oldest track in America, and its ways are old-fashioned ways. After eleven months of new-fashioned ways, it is as restful as old slippers, as quiet as real joy.” (This Was Racing)

Red Smith

  1. “The United States Hotel Stakes has outlasted the United States Hotel here, which was torn down a few years ago. This is a splendid example of putting first things first: people can get along without food and shelter but they’ve got to have horse races.” (8/10/47)
  2. “Ordinarily this bureau does only a very modest trade in sweetness and light and hardly ever is moved to carol madrigals in any morning hours, except the very smallest ones. But if there is a man who can loaf through breakfast at Saratoga and not feel his spirits rising like blueberry muffins, then he must be dead. And not recently dead either.” (8/29/53)
  3. On Saratoga: “The dowager queen of American racing” (8/24/54)
  4. On racing: “A pleasant pastime which in a few favored places like Saratoga retains some traces of its early character as sport. You might feel that if Saratoga were to pass, something oddly valuable would die with it.” (8/24/54)
  5. “By 11 o’clock, three hours before post time for the first race … the paddock area was a sprawling picnic ground, or, rather an oversized outdoor reading room. Scholars occupied the benches and chairs beneath the elms and maples, each of them bearing literature and all of them absorbed in silent study. They had programs, past performance charts, scratch sheets and brightly colored tout cards, and almost the only sound was the rustle of turning pages.” (8/24/58)
  6. Attributed to Red Smith from William Nack“From New York City, you drive north on the Thruway for about 175 miles, turn off at Exit 14, take Union Avenue heading west – and go back about 100 years.” (8/22/88)

Andrew Beyer

  1. “Although visitors here first are struck by the beauty of the track, the charming ambience of the town and the proximity to so much high society and old money, it is the intellectual life of this community that leaves its mark on a horseplayer.” (7/29/81)
  2. “The genial, relaxed atmosphere of Saratoga is most evident when the ninth race has been run and the crowd is dispersing. At almost any other track, people show varying degrees of disgruntlement as they stomp toward the exits. Here they leave leisurely and, for the most part, they look happy and content. It is a rare race track indeed that can be said to contribute to its patrons’ peace of mind.” (9/7/86)
  3. “As surely as other pilgrims may seek to visit Jerusalem, every racing fan should aspire to see Saratoga.” (8/9/87)
  4. “For someone passionate about racing, Saratoga offers a total absorption into the game and its traditions that can’t be found anywhere else.” (8/22/89)
  5. “While Saratoga may be too hectic and crowded for comfort, racing fans have seen too much of the alternative. As attendance has dwindled at most American tracks, the atmosphere at them has become dispiriting. Belmont Park is a magnificent facility – superior in many ways to Saratoga – but with 5,000 people rattling around the cavernous grandstand on a weekday, it is spooky and depressing. A horseplayer can’t help thinking that he’s a relic playing a dying game. In Saratoga, where the track is packed every day and the whole community is preoccupied by racing, no such negative thoughts are possible.” (8/22/2002)

Steven Crist

  1. “Once a year, at this place of swift waters, the railbird can soar for a month or a moment. Rejuvenated and affirmed, he can then open his Racing Form and get on with the serious business of divining tomorrow’s daily double.” (7/28/80)
  2. “It is for these grittiest horseplayers that the balm of Saratoga is sweetest. All that these improvers of the breed ask are a roof within walking distance of the track, relatively clean sheets and a table large enough to unfurl a Racing Form. For almost a month, they are allowed to think and talk nothing but exactas, overlays and Cordero’s bum ride in the feature.” (7/28/80)
  3. “Handicappers consider Saratoga a sort of annual final exam. All the diverse factors and situations involved in analyzing a horse race seem to be concentrated in the 24 days of this meeting.” (8/19/81)
  4. Quoting a horseplayer on opening day “’This is the best day of 1990 so far,’ said… a fan who had neither won nor lost a bet yet as he watched the horses being saddled for the day’s first race. ‘For a horseplayer, this is like New Year’s. You made it through another year.’” (8/2/90)
  5. “Perhaps that is the secret of Saratoga’s success. For many of the new patrons, a day at Saratoga is like a day in their own backyard, with the added amusement of nine horse races on a television screen.” (8/25/90)

Frank Graham

  1. “Monte Carlo in America, as John Morrissey dreamed? Not exactly, perhaps, but better. For who would trade Monte Carlo in America for Saratoga in August?” (7/25/38) N.B. John Morrissey was the founder and organizer of the racetrack at Saratoga.
  2. “There is little reason to doubt that it will continue and that in years to come, as in the years gone by, the place to be in August will be Saratoga.” (9/2/39)
  3. “That, to my mind, always has been the greatest meeting in the country. It always has given racing a—well, I don’t know just what you’d call it—a sort of transfusion of the old sporting spirit, I guess. It’s always brought the best people of racing together—people from all over the country—and the racing there always has been the best. Every now and then I hear somebody say Saratoga is old-fashioned—that it’s been left behind in the progress racing has made in the last few years. Maybe it is . . . but maybe that’s what racing needs, a little of the old-fashioned, or maybe it’s just that I’m old-fashioned to think that way.” (Quoting Jim Fitzsimmons, 7/26/43)
  4. On his desire to be buried in the Saratoga infield: “It’s a beautiful place, restful and lovely. I could lie there and listen to the morning works. And maybe if I played my cards right with the management I’d be allowed to stick my head up about post time for the first race and see what’s going on.” (Red Smith column, 11/4/50)
  5. “When Saratoga ?is closed down, if ever, racing . . . will have closed down, too, and whatever is left over you can have.’” (Steven Crist quoting Frank Graham, 7/28/80)

Paul Moran

  1. “Saratoga has as much to do with ritual as with racing, particularly now that it is among the sport’s unadulterated links with history. In an age of dizzying flux within the industry, Saratoga, the oldest course in the United States, is indeed the elder statesman, if not the tabernacle of racing’s traditions.” (7/27/86)
  2. “For a month in the summertime, thoroughbred racing is sport again. Colorful again Sport again.” (7/27/86)
  3. “Saratoga and important horses are roughly synonymous. Horses of great accomplishment and budding promise race here because they are important, have the potential to become important or claim a former importance. A 2-year-old Secretariat first screamed for attention here. Man o’ War suffered the only defeat of his lifetime on this ground. Scores of champions of lesser legend competed in front of the same wooden grandstand that creaks in spots but still stands.” (7/26/96)
  4. “Saratoga is where Royal Ascot meets Woodstock; where patrician tans and horseplayer pallor seem not to clash in the shade of peppermint-stripe awnings; where every week of the racing season has six Saturdays.” (7/25/02)
  5. “At Saratoga, the connection between past and future remains intact and tangible in a place steeped in rich tradition and history, site of the pivotal battle of the American Revolution, the place where the potato chip was conceived, Upset beat Man o’ War and Onion upset Secretariat. During what is easily the best race meeting of the year, about a million people will pass through the gates of an iconic racetrack, the first 27,346 on opening day. Yet, though the racetrack dates to the Civil War, is shaded by trees two centuries old and is situated on a boulevard lined with 19th Century Victorian mansions, what Saratoga is really about is youth.” (7/27/2006)

Jimmy Cannon

  1. “The village of Saratoga was the Coney Island of the underworld.” (8/4/54)
  2. “The ghosts are still dancing in the ballrooms of the torn down hotels of Saratoga. They’re famous ghosts with their shrouds full of winning-tickets. Nostalgia bars the losers. (8/12/55)
  3. “I like going to the barns early in the morning, but the people I visit are race-trackers. They’re such as Bill Winfrey, Old Man Fitz, and guys who train horses and run them. It is a kind place to be in the early morning, because this is where the horsemen are. It’s pleasant sitting on the porch of the clubhouse, eating breakfast and watching the works. The horses run in the morning, before the heat rises, and you can hear the exercise boys talking to them in a private language of yips.” (8/12/55)
  4. “Bring another order of strawberries and cream at breakfast on the clubhouse terrace at Saratoga while Native Dancer walks in the sunlight still misty with the dregs of the night.” (6/30/60)

Bill Christine

  1. “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.” (8/25/85)
  2. “Saratoga’s tradition is built on more than just longevity. It has come from more than a century of splendid racing, upsets, controversies and outcomes that determined champions.” (8/25/85)
  3. “Saratoga: Thousands of motorists making the 150-mile trip back to New York City on a Sunday night, sad that the Saratoga experience comes only one month a year.” (8/27/87)
  4. “That ageless dowager of American racing.” (8/18/87)

John Lardner

  1. “Saratoga presenting as it does the combination of tradition, beauty and excitement.” (8/18/39)
  2. “The racetrack is probably at the heart of Saratoga’s lure, after all. Its beauty is hard to forget. Even the toughest professional dice-shooter begins to pine for the trees, the flowers, and the gracious lawn of the old horse gallery in the mountains by the time August is near.” (8/19/39)
  3. “[The end of Saratoga] would mean the end of racing’s happiest chapter.” (8/17/42)
  4. “There is something about Saratoga, the mellow stones of Broadway, the vast hotels that date from reconstruction days, the shady paddock, the bright days and cool nights, the lake in the evening and the gay places along the lake that brings forth honest emotion from even jockeys, stewards and parlay bettors.” (8/17/42)

Bill Leggett

  1. “Last week, however, Saratoga started to do again what it has been doing so well for 94 years, filling an aching need in American horse racing.” (8/17/59)
  2. “In an age when we are rapidly approaching tile tracks and instant horses, it remains one of the brightest pleasures of the entire racing year to see the biggest and best stables racing at Saratoga for prestige and old and honored trophies.” (8/17/59)
  3. “Much of the magic of Saratoga is kept for the mornings. A spectator is able to have breakfast on a terrace and listen to the exercise boys cooing to their mounts. Or he can walk around and come across some fairly strange sights, like Eddie Arcaro standing alone, whistling.” (8/17/59)
  4. “E. Barry Ryan expressed the same opinion. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘Saratoga is Ascot and Goodwood rolled into one. There is something to coming to Saratoga. It’s not good to keep racing in one area or at one track for too long. It’s good for man and good for horse to get to Saratoga.’” N.B. E. Barry Ryan was a well-known horseman. (8/17/59)

William Nack

  1. Quoting a horseplayer: “Here there isn’t the pallor that people have at Aqueduct when they bet, the trembling hand. War is impossible at Saratoga. The trees and nature make people behave as they’re suppose to behave.”(8/21/73)
  2. “Saratoga is to Aqueduct as Walden Pond is to Jamaica Bay.” (8/18/74)
  3. “Saratoga is as close to God’s heaven as one can get in the horse racing game. Santa Anita has its San Gabriel Mountains, Hialeah its flamingos and palms, and Belmont Park its style and elegance, but only Saratoga offers the 19th century.” (8/22/88)
  4. “The flow of gambling gold into the town every August was so rich and so steady that the work of the devil was usually happily condoned.” (8/22/88)

Damon Runyon

  1. “Ye scribe has always contended that the race track at Saratoga had something on any other spot dedicated to the galloping gees on this continent in the matter of scenic beauty.” (10/4/28)
  2. “Not many of the racing crowd can spare the time necessary to a course of the waters. In the afternoon, the racing crowd is busy playing the horses. In the evening, it is occupied doping the horses for the next day. In the morning, it is engaged in digging up the money to play the horses in the afternoon that it doped out in the evening.” (7/29/37)
  3. “All in all then, the season left little to be desired and we repeat we are delighted as we consider the Saratoga meeting the most important of all New York state meetings.” (9/8/41)
  4. “‘The Spa’ is the last stand of sentiment and romance in connection with New York racing.” (1/18/44)

Arthur Daley

  1. “The Spa meeting was more than a series of horse races. It was an outing, a vacation and a healthful visit to the baths all wrapped up in the same neat and attractive package.” (7/25/43)
  2. “Time passes by Saratoga and gives it only the lightest and most affectionate of touches… Everything is a page from the past.” (8/15/51)
  3. “The delightfully mellow appeal of Saratoga is something that grows on a fellow. The lovers of the breed, who are not to be confused with the hoss players, luxuriate in its nostalgic crown. ” (8/21/50)

Steve Daley

  1. “The most genteel of racetrack settings.” (8/5/81)
  2. Still for all the Runyonesque shabbiness along the rail, Saratoga is different. Even the railbirds nod in the direction of history.” (8/5/81)
  3. “The gamblers, unencumbered by limos, trot off to places like the Reading Room there to plot the next day’s efforts. Talk of exactas, quinellas and trifectas fills the air. In this pleasing underworld, there is only Saratoga and the horses.” (8/5/81)

Bill Finley

  1. “Saratoga is its crown jewel because it is one of the last places on Earth where people can still go to a racetrack, a real racetrack. It exists all by itself in a vacuum, untouched and undamaged by the swirling changes that have affected so much of this industry.” (7/20/94)
  2. “There is no place like it, no other racetrack with so much history and tradition, so much charm and beauty.” (7/25/99)
  3. “That’s the beauty of Saratoga – the place never really changes; it’s just as special and as beautiful in 1998 as it was in 1888.” (7/26/98)

Stan Isaacs

  1. “At Saratoga, a racetrack customer almost begins to learn that horse racing has to do with horses.” (8/18/64)
  2. “One patron of the turf, $2 genus, was obviously affected by it all the other afternoon. Standing in the shade of a huge tree, he was moved to look not only at the horse but at the tree. He then turned to an old Saratoga hand and said, ‘That’s an elm tree, isn’t it?’ The Saratoga veteran said with a smile. ‘No, it’s a stately old elm tree. We must be precise.’” (8/18/64)
  3. “If there were a benevolent great horseman in horseplayers heaven, everybody who has ever been to a racetrack would be given a free trip to the races at Saratoga.” (8/22/66)

Peter Burnaugh

  1. “The racing at Saratoga has a flavor all its own. No such brilliant sport is found on any other track in America. Here the best of the East, the South, and the West meet in five weeks of spirited—and often bitter—intersectional dispute.” (8/10/27 posthumous)
  2. “Saratoga Springs in the month of August is not merely the most fashionable home of healing waters, or the home of the best racing to be found in America, though it happens to be both. It has a celebrity which is grounded a good deal deeper. Reduced to essentials, its peculiar charm lies in the opportunity it offers to a broad class of Americans to live for one month as they imagine they would like to live for the eleven other months of the year.” (8/10/27 posthumous)

Ed Comerford

  1. “Somehow losing a bet doesn’t hurt at Saratoga as much as it hurts at Aqueduct. The surroundings ease the pain.” (8/19/75)
  2. “Turf writers made a mistake telling their readers what fun it was to go to the races at Saratoga. We should have kept it a secret.” (8/23/81)

Bill Corum

  1. “Still, you can’t beat the setting inside the spacious Union Ave. course, drowsing through its years of racing and steeped in a tradition unequalled by any other sporting field in this country.” (8/2/33)
  2. “I never come back to Saratoga but that it makes me a little melancholy.” (8/2/33)

George Daley

  1. “Even as Belmont is the Newmarket of America, so is Saratoga Springs the Ascot of this country.” (7/31/32)
  2. “There is a charm about the racing here. It is the summer playground of the sport. The commercial side is lost to a large extent in the sporting side which creates a pleasing atmosphere. Everyone seems to be on a vacation and in truth most everybody is.” (8/3/33)

Joe Drape

  1. “See, Saratoga is a lot more than a horse town. That may be what first brought me and countless others here over the past 150 years, but it isn’t what has kept generations coming back. It is the people who have done that. It may seem a timeless place, but memories are made and traditions are handed down as time marches on.” (7/19/2013)
  2. “Horse racing is often a hard game to like, but Saratoga shows why it is an easy game to love. The sound of hooves crossing Union Avenue, the morning mist that rises from the Oklahoma training track, the steam rising from beneath the blankets of freshly bathed racehorses, are touchstones that are good for the soul.” (7/18/2014)

Art Kennedy

  1. “Nothing but the atom bomb could destroy the natural beauty of this hallowed horse track. (8/5/49)
  2. “Of all the tracks be-deviled by mutuals, this is probably the only one where a customer could still enjoy a day’s outing if the machines went out of order.” (8/5/49)

Ring Lardner

  1. “All and all, when the races was over and we was riding back to town the entire party joined in the singing of ‘A Perfect Day.’” (9/2/23)
  2. “Next we all walked out to the paddock which ain’t like the paddock at other tracks but at Saratoga they have got a great big forest full of trees and before every race the different horses trainers and jockeys picks out different trees and walks there horses around them so as everyone can see them.” (9/2/23)

James Roach

  1. Quoting Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons: “The way I look at it, if Saratoga were to start to go, racing would start to go. Racing people don’t come here to make money. They come here for the love of the races and the horses. The races here, after the emphasis on making-money in New York give you the kind of kick you need badly. There’s nothing I can say about Saratoga except nice things. Everybody worthwhile in racing gets to Saratoga in August. Saratoga is the big thing for me, and it’s the big thing for racing.” (8/4/52)
  2. “By the time the first flake of snow touches a Saratoga elm, it’s barely possible that the street cleaning department will have swept the last slightly used mutual ticket from the streets.” (9/1/57)

Whitney Tower

  1. “It is at Saratoga where the common denominator is a love or fascination for racing and where this traditionally respected bond brings people happily together.” (9/1/58)
  2. “The thing about Saratoga that seems to separate it from other cities whose principal trade comes from racing is that while it openly pursues the tourist dollar it isn’t opposed to giving the spender a fair return on investment made.” (9/1/58)

George Vecsey

  1. “The Travers is one of those good American rituals. The hallowed ?Who do you like – and why?’ would be just as valid if the field included Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew or Adirondack trail horses. The main thing is going to the track, surrounded by lush woods and blessed with the enthusiasm of a county fair.” (8/14/83)
  2. “The best part is the small-town flavor, where millionaire horse owners live in mansions a block from more modest abodes, where it is possible for a host to say, ?Oh, that’s the Galbreaths’ house.’” (8/14/83)

Furman Bisher

  1. “His name was Joe Palmer, and the past tense is applied because Joe was removed from the earth about a year ago at age 48. Since the removal took place at Saratoga, it may be assumed that Joe went contented, for he loved Saratoga so.” (8/16/53)

Al Buck

  1. “At the track they fight and struggle before the mutual windows. This is Boom Town, U. S. A. There are too few taxi cabs and not enough winners.” (8/17/46)

Mike Farrell

  1. “It has character, charm, and history working in its favor. Saratoga is the Fenway Park and Wrigley Field of horseracing, an authentic throwback that transports fans to an earlier time. Racing was first conducted at the present site in 1864. There have been race meets every summer with the exception of a two-year hiatus beginning in 1911 and a three-year gap due to World War II. Saratoga represents a delicate balance of the historic and the modern. Just as Wrigley Field eventually installed lights, the oldest racetrack in the country has added electronic touches such as giant video screens and a state-of-the-art tote board. (8/24/2001)

Frank Fitzpatrick

  1. “Every summer at this throwback track, the focal point of this impossibly quaint town, high society mingles with low culture. The alluring racing season at Saratoga Springs, where natural mineral waters drew the wealthy as far back as the late 18th century, has always provided a study in social contrasts.” (8/26/2003)

Nicholas Godfrey

  1. “Be that as it may, the horse remains firmly centre stage throughout. In terms of prestige, the US has nothing to match Saratoga, where the racing pitch is impressively high, like a six week Glorious Goodwood.” (8/5/2009)

Dick Jerardi

  1. “You understand this world is enchanted when, upon leaving the New York Thruway and proceeding a few hundred yards on Union Avenue, all traffic is stopped to allow the horses for the next race to cross the street where horse racing’s cathedral beckons. Time seemingly has stood still in this upstate New York town since Saratoga Race Course was established near the end of the Civil War. The Victorian mansions on Broadway speak to another age. The trees have grown larger than some skyscrapers.” (8/24/2001)

Landon Manning

  1. “Do you know what tradition is? There is almost no accounting for it and which once caused the late great turf writer Joe Palmer to write that if ‘Saratoga didn’t actually exist it would have to be invented.’” (7/29/68)

Neil Milbert

  1. “America’s social elite – the Whitneys, the Phippses and the Mellons – meet here every August. But the $2 bettor feels just as much at home as those who can trace their bank accounts way back to the day and age of the robber barons of industry. At times, parimutuel betting is an exercise in trickle-down economics. The ambience is one of intimacy; Brooks Brothers rubbing elbows with J.C. Penney. Thoroughbreds are led through the crowd to be saddled under a canopy of trees. Jockeys mingle with fans while making their way to the paddock.” (8/20/93)

Jim Murray

  1. “Del Mar came to be serenaded as the ‘Saratoga of the West.’ Where the surf met the turf. But it was not so stuffy as its Eastern counterpart; you didn’t have to wear a hat or carry a parasol at Del Mar, and it had amenities the New York track couldn’t offer. The Pacific Ocean on its home stretch, for example. (12/30/88)

Westbrook Pegler

  1. “The reopening of the race track at Saratoga N.Y, for the regular summer meeting of five weeks revives the fact that there are certain cities in the United States which by tacit consent have been declared to be free towns immune from certain of the moral exactions and restrictions which are enforced elsewhere.” (7/23/29)

John Pricci

  1. “But somehow, the dateline – Saratoga 1980 – seems like an anachronism. Main Street, called Broadway here, but thankfully the imposing elms under which the best horses in the world often saddled help freeze this place into its roots, when Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady were doing their respective things.” (8/3/80)

Sherry Ross

  1. “Saratoga Springs has always resisted change. Tradition is respected, make that revered, at the upstate town, which first held horse racing in 1863.” (7/21/2002)

W. C. Vreeland

  1. “Serene Saratoga! Sparkling Spa! France has its Deauville, England its Bath, and the good old U.S.A. its Saratoga. Somehow, under the glorious elms and oaks that make the Saratoga saddling reservation quite apart from any other paddock in the world, this line that was originated by some poet, who believed that God alone could make a tree, fits the situation, ‘Whispering trees, memories—and you.’” (6/12/32)
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