Shortly before I came to Saratoga this summer, I sat down with NYRA president Charlie Hayward to talk about what racing fans might expect to see here this summer: what if any changes had been made, whether the track would look any different, what improvements visitors might expect.
The short answer, as I wrote here, was that the place would look substantially the same. As part of our conversation, Hayward gave me a copy of The Spa: Saratoga’s Legendary Track, a visual and narrative architectural history of Saratoga Race Course, written by Paul Roberts of Turnberry Consulting and Isabelle Taylor.
Roberts is a partner in Turnberry Consulting, first hired by NYRA in 2008 on a six-month contract to determine how to set priorities for renovating and developing the track. NYRA was so happy with Turnberry’s work that Roberts’ company was hired for the duration of the next stage in the track’s evolution.
Turnberry is known for working with historical universities such as Oxford on development and protection. Roberts also has worked extensively with racetracks around the world, and that work formed the basis of a lecture series this summer, sponsored by the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and NYRA.
Previous lectures in the series focused on international racetracks, but last night was all Saratoga. Drawing on what had been learned about the track’s architectural history through two exhaustive inventories of the buildings and landscape, Roberts took the audience on a historical and architectural tour of the last 165 years of racing in Saratoga.
“Saratoga,” he said, “is a story of constant change,” pointing out that the 1902 renovation under the stewardship of William Collins Whitney, the renovation that in large part contributed to how the track looks today, was the third major development in the track’s short history.
Similarly, he said, the white ironwork and red and white theme that characterize the track to contemporary eyes hasn’t been around for even half of the racetrack’s life.
Racetracks change, according to Roberts, as they adapt to technology and their own success. Many of the losses mourned at Saratoga – the re-purposing of the saddling shed, the destruction of the Whitney clubhouse – came about because of Saratoga’ popularity and the need to accommodate larger crowds. The betting ring at the top of the stretch became obsolete when pari-mutuel wagering became legal, leading to the creation of a new betting area on what is now the ground floor of the clubhouse.
Roberts left his audience with two pieces of advice: Acknowledge the reality of change at Saratoga, in the past and in the future, and identify what is special and take care of it.
He singled out for praise Saratoga’s backstretch, whose barns offer nine types of architectural typography, the result of the private training facilities that first made up the backside here. Belmont, Madden, Sanford all built their own facilities here, and those barns still exist in the Dupont, Sanford, and Clare Court areas.
“Each of those complexes on its own,” Roberts declared, “is more significant than anything at any other track in the United States, and they’re all here.
“The Saratoga backstretch is an architectural treasure.”
Comparing Saratoga to St. Andrews in Scotland, he said, “The town is the place and the place is the town,” he said. The sporting facility is embedded in the town, inseparable from it, offering, he said, “an experience unparalleled in the world.”
He likened Saratoga to Ascot, saying that they are the only two racetracks that “sit above racing,” singling out Saratoga for “its unbelievable racing, unparalleled backstretch, and brand name.” “There’s none in the world like it,” he said.
Roberts’ book tells the same story he told last night, though without, perhaps, the effusive praise he lavished on our track. For those who love Saratoga, the images and the text are paeans to its history. Architecture lovers will find a close examination of style and theme. Historians will welcome the relationships that Roberts and Taylor outline between the track’s history and its development.
A portion of the proceeds of the book go to the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation; the book is available at the Preservation’s website and at Lyrical Ballad bookshop on Phila St., itself a Saratoga historical gem.