August 25, 2018

Happy Places and Secret Spaces

It's hard to believe that summer is bolting past...literally bolting. It has been a bit of an erratic one -- either very hot and humid (90s were not unusual and more expected this week) or raining. Only in the past few days have we had some heavenly days with warm, sunny weather and lovely cool evenings - great for sleeping after some pretty uncomfortable nights in the past month or two.

I don't want to get into global warming, but, boy, this is not the typical summer weather of my childhood, so, clearly, something is happening here. Mother Nature does NOT lie and when she starts shifting the norm, she is not her usual self. Just sayin'...

August always brings me to one of my most happy places in the world (that is not my home) and it is located not far from me in Saratoga Springs. As a horse person, I grew up going to the races there in August from the time I was about 7 years old. (I began riding at age 9.) Over the past several decades since my early years at the track, the racing season there has been extended from just 24 days in August to 40 racing days over six weeks from mid-July through Labor Day. And what was, in my childhood, a popular attraction has since become a massive one, attracting upwards of 25,000 people to enjoy the races on an average day, to a maximum of 50,000 on it's biggest racing day, Travers Stakes Day, which is usually the next-to-last Saturday of the meeting.

I still love going to the track, but I prefer a quieter time over wrestling with huge crowds on the venue's biggest day, and along with that, I really love finding special places in the area that many people either don't know about or just don't notice. Among them are three of my favorites over the years, including:

The Courtyard Garden at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame located on Union Avenue - a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that separates the main race course grandstand and grounds from its Oklahoma Training Track. This "vest-pocket" dedicated space, just east of the museum's main entrance, is on the east side of the building and is defined by a low iron fence that encloses this tiny garden's perimeter. An inviting oasis along Union Avenue with its bubbling tiered fountain, the garden is a delightful haven away from the fray just beyond its soothing environs.

One of the featured elements within the garden is the large, historic wrought iron gate from legendary Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland - home of the second jewel in racing's "Triple Crown" - the Preakness Stakes. This elegant and elaborate gate dates to 1870, when Pimlico was built, and it stood there until 1966 when a fire destroyed the clubhouse nearby.     

Just a short stroll to the east of the museum is the Oklahoma Training Track.
A special favorite place and time of day are the early morning hours at the aforementioned Oklahoma Training Track that is near (across the street) the main race course. This training facility is called "Oklahoma" for its "far-flung" distance from the main track. It's actually nearby, but for some - probably those who had to walked from the backstretch of the main track to one of to the barn areas at the training track - which can take a good 20-30 minutes, depending on one's pace - must have seemed as far away as Oklahoma is from New York state many years ago...and the name stuck.

There is, at Oklahoma (the training track), a lovely newer structure that calls to mind the facility's historic past in the form of the Whitney Viewing Stand. It is a structure built and dedicated in 2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of racing in Saratoga. Yes, horses have been racing there for more than 150 years - and I've been going there for 55 of them! (I remember the celebration of the centennial of racing in Saratoga that occurred back in 1963 - I was, of course, a child.)

The newer Whitney Viewing Stand is modeled after a traditional "judge's viewing stand" where race track officials once stood overlooking the main race track in the era long before cameras and digital video. The original viewing stand is long gone (though the track still employs patrol judges stationed at stands - elevated platforms - at points around the race track, along with an array of cameras recording the action during each race, to ensure that the sport is conducted fairly and in accordance with the rules of racing.

This newer viewing stand was built at the training track to provide a raised vantage point for horse trainers, owners and visitors to stand to enable them watch their horses train in the morning hours. THere were one or two much smaller stands - maybe 3 feet off the ground - for trainers to use, but there was nothing designed to invite the public to join them when the training track is in operation and open to the public visitors. (This is a training facility only, so there is no grandstand.)

The Whitney Viewing Stand is hard to miss - it stands high above most of the buildings and barns nearby that house horses, stable staff and maintenance facilities for the race courses, designed in the style of the distinctive Victorian architecture that characterizes the main race course.         

Training at Oklahoma occurs from mid-April to mid-November and is open to the public at no charge on weekends only during the "shoulder seasons" when the race meeting is not operating (usually from 8-10am, but they'll usually let you in a little earlier). During the racing season (mid-late July through Labor Day), the Oklahoma track is open on racing days (Wednesday through Monday). Even if you're not in the area during the racing season, if you're nearby on a weekend, make the effort to get up early and check out the scene at the training's a fascinating place!

If you're ready to move on, a short stroll (less than a mile) to the east is the rose garden at the renowned artists' retreat known as "Yaddo." Established at the historic property built by financier Spencer Trask in the late 1800s. Many a celebrated writer and artist have spent periods of productive time in the quiet idyllic surroundings of thie beautiful estate. Although the main buildings are not open to the public, the adjacent rose garden is open daily from dawn until dusk and, as with the other sites mentioned above, there is no admission cost to visit them.

Find more information on each of my favorite special places in Saratoga Springs on their respective websites (and in the case of the viewing stand, local tourism sites, since the race track's site isn't very detailed regarding either the training track or its viewing stand):

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Saratoga's Oklahoma Training Track and Viewing Stand (Note the information is dated, but it's worth checking with the security guard on site if you wish to visit)

Yaddo Rose Garden

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