You don't have to be a thorough- bred horse-racing fan to enjoy life during the month of August in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. -- although it helps.
Known affectionately as "The Spa" for the nearby mineral baths and healing waters that have attracted millions of visitors through the years to this area of upstate New York, Saratoga Race Course is much more than a horse track. It's a beautiful park where the best speed horses in America get to come and romp each summer, in probably the most desirable setting for man and beast on the continent.
The grounds are spacious at 267 Union Avenue, a reason that up to 25,000 visitors can pack the place on big racing weekends and still feel comfortable in the sunny landscape.
The track's main clubhouse and grandstand facility is gorgeous, an architectural throwback to the post-Civil War era when prizefighter and gangster John Morrissey brought the Sport of Kings to the city.
I like people-watching as well as the racing. It's a place where the modern-day aristocracy (Hollywood celebrities who are now trendy horse owners can be seen sitting in the reserve boxes and walking through the clubhouse) and the gentry (folks like me) can rub elbows in mutual satisfaction at another glorious day of leisure.
Two years ago, I actually struck up a conversation with former New England Patriots head football coach Bill Parcells. He's a horse owner and was standing next to the Racing Secretary's Office.
The Spa, though, has other beautiful amenities besides the racetrack. In fact, you don't even have to go inside the track to watch a live race. You can sit all day under a stately pine tree, in the shade, and listen to live music at the bandstand in front of the open-air Carousel pavilion, eat a bagged or purchased lunch, and drink your favorite beverage while watching the races on Jumbotron TV screens located on the grounds.
Here's an added bonus: You can bring your own cooler of beer (cans are allowed, glass bottles prohibited) and food onto the grounds, along with a lawn chair, and stake out a spot. Early arrivals -- the gates open at 11 a.m., each day, except Tuesdays, when the track is dark -- can lay claim to a free picnic table if they're quick out of the morning gate.
The outside grounds also feature dozens of food kiosks, artists' galleries, shops, restaurants and bars, including the most famous one -- the Jim Dandy Bar on the ground floor of the clubhouse.
I've been going to Saratoga Race Course each August for more than two decades, and as I've grown older, I've come to appreciate more of Saratoga Springs' beautiful surroundings. Two years ago, my wife and I made it an October getaway destination on our way to the Finger Lakes wine region.
Racing continues at the track through Labor Day weekend, but like I said, there's so much more to do in this family-friendly and pet-friendly city if horse racing isn't your thing. Saratoga Springs is a cultural, historical and recreational mecca.
On this page and Page S5 are 10 reason you should visit this summer.
No. 10 -- The grand Victorian Adelphi Hotel is located at 365 Broadway, the city's main street which is filled with boutique shops and bistros galore. But this is the gem. It reopened this year after a five-year reconstruction and is as lavish as ever.
No. 9 -- Druthers Brewing Company, located at 381 Broadway, is open daily, from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., for lunch and craft beers like Golden Rule Pilsner, Fist of Karmine Brown, Against the Grain Hefeweizen, Oktoberfest, and Bounty Wit. It's a fun place with a bright, lively and spacious bar that invites you to explore the microbrewery.
No. 8 -- The National Museum of Dance and School of Arts is up the street on Roosevelt Drive and is a part of the Saratoga Spa Park. If you have a child interested in the arts, this is the place to go for an afternoon. I just happened to go there on a rainy day and was blown away by the exhibits. Guided tours begin each day at 11:15 a.m., in the main lobby; admission is free. If you go now, you can see "Dancers in Flim," which features both well-known dance stars and actors who have had famous dancing roles in movies. Highlighted in the exhibit are Lifetime Award recipients Ann-Margret, John Travolta and Chita Rivera. In celebration of the museum's 30th anniversary, "Art in the Foyer: Design for Dance" is now showing the costume sketches of designer and dance historian Malcolm McCormick, whose stellar work for the Metropolitan Opera has won world acclaim.
No. 7 -- Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or SPAC, nestled inside Saratoga Spa State Park along the Avenue of the Pines, features concerts and classical shows all summer long in a 5,200-seat amphitheater. Here you can sit on the sloping lawn and watch performances by the New York Ballet, Philadelphia Orchestra and Live Nation musical acts. There are matinee and evening performances. Upcoming concerts include Dierks Bentley with Brothers Osborne and Lanco, Aug. 5; Russian Renaissance, Aug. 6; Sound All Around Tuba (free program for children ages 3-6), Aug. 7; and The Piano Guys, Aug. 7.
No. 6 -- Saratoga Spa State Park is a tranquil, stunningly beautiful, 2,400-acre park on Roosevelt Drive that is listed as a National Historic Landmark. It features SPAC, the Spa Little Theater, the National Museum of Dance, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, the Gideon Putnam Resort, and Roosevelt Baths and Spa. There are public swimming pools, hiking trails, biking trails and birdwatching sections, along with an 18-hole championship golf course and a 9-hole executive golf course. On our family destination two years ago, we packed a lunch, sat on a blanket, and watched a vintage-car show and auction on the grounds. I also took a nap. Every August, my racing buddies and I play the 18-hole golf course, a testy layout through the immaculate pine forest.
No. 5 -- The National Racing Hall of Fame, located across the street from the racetrack on Union Avenue, is a must-see for its historical exhibits and up-to-date Hall of Fame gallery, which pays homage to the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. Just like Baseball's Hall of Fame, the athletes (horses, in this case) get a plaque with their achievements listed. Pick out the great John Henry's plaque on the wall and read his 10 years of accomplishments that have not been duplicated and likely never will. There are interactive exhibits, a movie theater and dozens of galleries. Take your photo in front of the full-sized bronze statue of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and you'll forever love the No. 3 in your exacta wagering.
No. 4 -- Roosevelt Baths and Spa. Yes, I am man enough to admit that I succumbed to the myth of the healing mineral waters of Saratoga Springs and took the treatment, and it was one of the most pleasurable two hours I've ever experienced. Years ago, people would travel from across the country to "take the cure" at the spa -- and they still come. Everyone gets his or her own deep, private porcelain tub filled with emerald green water and effervescent bubbles that tingle up your spine. Don't knock it if you've never tried it. Call 800-452-7275, ext. 4, and reserve your return to a divine, other worldly place today.
No. 3 -- The Saratoga National Park is located 14 miles east of Saratoga Springs and is the battle site where the then-good Benedict Arnold rallied an outmanned Revolutionary Army to victory over the 4,000 British regiment under the command of Gen. John Burgoyne. The stunning 1777 victory, in which Burgoyne's entire army surrendered to Colonial forces, has been called the turning point of the American Revolution. You can take a guided tour of the battleground. The park is also home to bird sanctuaries, streams, and hiking and biking trails. Pets are allowed on the grounds.
No. 2 -- The Saratoga Casino Hotel is tucked inside the Saratoga Harness Track, which runs most evenings. You can dine inside two glass-enclosed restaurants and watch the races, or you can walk through to the hotel and dine at Morton's Steakhouse. This is a special treat. I've found Morton's to be brilliant in hospitality and service. The wines are excellent, too. Even though I am not a card player, I like to walk through the casino and watch the crowds. This place is airy, clean and friendly.
No 1 -- Wine and Dine. The restaurants in Saratoga Springs and its surrounding towns are delightful, delicious, and there's one to fit every family budget. You can window-shop downtown, then drop into any one of a dozen breakfast, lunch and dinner spots that are bound to satisfy your appetite. I say explore and find your own favorite spots. However, if you plan to stay up to five days in the city, here are some personal recommendations:
* The Country Corner Cafe. It's located on 25 Church St., just off Broadway, and there's no better place to start your day. It's really busy in season, so try to get there early for the homemade jam on toasted bread with eggs Benedict or an omelette filled with fresh local farm produce. If you've never tried "fried oatmeal" before, this is the place. The restaurant has been cited in several food magazines as the best breakfast spot in Upstate New York.
* Prime at Saratoga National Golf Course. The menu is a bit pricey, but dining al fresco at dusk or during the evening leads to a memorable New York steakhouse experience. Bright torches light up the outdoor promenade, where diners overlook the scenic golf course and ponds. Exemplary in every way, and the wine list is extraordinary. This is a two-trifecta tab for a party of four!
* Mama Mia's Restaurant. It's unpretentious and located in a strip mall at 185 Ballston Ave., and owner Giuseppe Grisio cooks authentic Italian cuisine as if he were chef to Michelangelo. From pizza to calzones to orecchiette pasta, everything is fresh and tasty and reasonably priced for families. The homemade desserts are fabulous, too. This is where the locals go, so it's busy. You can eat in the bar or the dining room. Do it right and make a reservation or you could find yourself waiting in line (518-583-7783).
* The Wine Bar at 417 Broadway is where you might catch a glimpse of the jet-setters talking about how they prefer Saratoga over the Hamptons. It has a soothing atmosphere with leather chairs and soft coaches, plus a dining room specializing in good steaks and seafood. The wine list is extensive, and they serve an impressive 50 different wines by the glass. There's a room where you can smoke a cigar without getting hassled. The best night is Saturday, when the soothing sounds of live piano music fill the place from 7-10 p.m.
* The Wishing Well Restaurant, a former farmhouse built in 1836, is my all-time favorite area restaurant. It's well worth making the 15-minute drive to this historic location at 745 Saratoga Road in Wilton. It's open every day of the week during racing season. They greet you with a plate of the tastiest, ripest sliced tomatoes you'll ever eat. Everything gets better from there. The New England lobster bisque is a fantastic starter for either the New York Strip Steak, Baked Atlantic Salmon with pecan crust, or the Lazy 1 1/2 pound Lobster with lemon butter. The bar is so cozy, however, you might never leave it. For martini drinkers, there's magic in every glass.