Just as the Woodstock festival did not actually take place in Woodstock, the Battle of Saratoga — considered the turning point of the American Revolution — actually went down in nearby Stillwater. No matter. By 1777, Saratoga Springs was already well-known for its healing waters, so its name was easily appropriated.
Saratoga Springs, battlefield and spa. Yet it is a third claim to fame that turns this quaint town into The Place To Be each August: Thoroughbred racing. (That’s Thoroughbred with a capital “T”: the specific breed of horse that is to racing what Ferraris are to cars — sleek, fast, and expensive.) From the last week in July through Labor Day, visitors pour into town, hotels book to capacity, and many locals flee, renting out their houses to racing fans.
“Renting houses is big for the people who live here,” says Susie Brown, author of the local blog Downtown Susie Brown. “And people start doing that in February.” What about other options? “Is it impossible to get a hotel room? No,” she says. “But you’re going to pay.”
The tourists reflect the contrast you’d expect from a place known for both war and healing. “You see everybody,” Brown says. “The ones with the big hats and beautiful jewelry to the guys smoking cigars by the rail. That’s the beauty of Saratoga — it attracts such a diverse crowd.”
There’s the elite, with storied surnames like Whitney, Mellon, and Phipps; and the “wannabes” (as Brown calls them) who eat at the best restaurants but don’t get invited to Mary Lou Whitney’s gala (which, according to the rumors, won’t take place this year). And there’s everybody else. All of them partake of a tradition that dates back to the Civil War.
There is no dress code at the track, but looking the part adds to the charm. “You can go casual, but it’s fun to have a reason to dress up,” Brown says, adding that this summer, you’ll see maxi dresses and “the Grecian look.” Broadway, the town’s main thoroughfare, features upscale boutiques like Aggies as well as more affordable shops like Violet’s, 80 West, Lucia, Speck, and Frivolous.
Then there are the hats. It’s traditional to wear a hat to the track, and attendees go to great lengths to find the right lid. At the Hats Off to Saratoga Festival, revelers poke fun at the tradition by donning downright goofy headgear. “They have a hat contest. People make their own hats,” Brown says. “They’ll have the track on their head, and things like that.”
The best time to hit the track is the early morning. “You can grab coffee and a bagel and watch the horses do their warm-ups,” Brown says. “You can see the horses and jockeys close-up. And it’s free.”
But the races are just the beginning of the fun. Afterwards, the crowd drifts to posh Siro’s for dinner (for the elite) and drinks (for everyone else). The Saratoga Sunrise is the libation of choice. “They have an outside patio. It’s the place to go right after the track,” says Brown. Other hot spots include the Horseshoe Inn, Gotchya’s Trattoria, and the Beekman Street Bistro.
The meet draws big names to the nearby Saratoga Performing Arts Center: Coldplay; the Allman Brothers; and yes, Bruce Springsteen. There are performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a chamber music festival. And Caffé Lena, where Don McLean supposedly composed “American Pie,” is always a hot option for acoustic music.
Plus, Saratoga Springs is kid-friendly. There’s a carousel, a trolley, and the Peerless Pool at Saratoga Spa State Park. Last but not least are the natural mineral springs — the town’s original draw all those years ago.
Bottom line: Saratoga in August is pricey but fun… even without the Whitney gala.