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Back to Saratoga and the elms

Old trophies and love of sport, not big purses, attract racing's finest to this small-town track

There was an old man sitting under an elm tree on opening day at Saratoga last week. Said he was 67. Said he had driven over from Rochester, 220 miles to the west. Had his Morning Telegraph, his binoculars and his wife with him. Ventured as how he hadn't missed an opening day at Saratoga in 31 years. The wife said that on the way back home they would stop off in Utica to eat. She knows a place that has good pot roast. They wouldn't give their names, though. You know how it is. Her sister thinks horse racing is shameful.

Once, of course, Saratoga was a fine town, a wise town, a guys' town, for it had Arnold Rothstein and Pittsburgh Phil; Sophie Tucker and Gypsy Rose Lee; the rattle of dice and the dizzying whirl of roulette. Now everybody goes bowling. You know how it is.

Last week, however, Saratoga started to do again what it has been doing so well for 90 years, filling an aching need in American horse racing. As always, it was being criticized by those who do not know what racing is all about. The critics say that Saratoga has small crowds and a paltry pari-mutuel handle when compared to Monmouth Park in New Jersey. They say that it is criminal for Thoroughbred racing to leave the city of New York for 24 days. They sneer because the State of New York is not getting enough money in taxes. But they don't say anything about Monmouth running six claiming races on an eight-race card last Wednesday when Saratoga had only two in nine.

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. Here, in the elmed quiescence of the paddock, the silks of Greentree, Brookmeade, George D. Widener, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, King Ranch and Wheatley Stable are worn by the Arcaros, the Shoemakers, the Ycazas. Once a day there is either a steeplechase or a hurdle race and the crowds love them.

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. If he walks to the old Oklahoma training track he might find Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons pumping water and talking to a young boy, "Son, winning is good but it's when a man loses the public really sees what he's got down deep inside himself." Just walking in the gate a casual fan will pick up some knowledge and description that is part of the race track's special humor: "That Pete Anderson's so bowlegged he couldn't catch a pig in a trench."

This year Saratoga was without a substantial rain for six weeks before its meeting opened. The blades of grass which always seem to be kept in a bright green glow were like so many nicotine-stained fingers. But on the third day of the meeting Saratoga got a heavy rain, and by the weekend the glow was back. The racing surface itself, which was too deep in the past few years, now has a three-inch cushion which makes it faster than before but still safe. An aluminum rail, mounted on offset standards set in concrete bases, replaced the old one, which was beginning to splinter. Plopped into the middle of the paddock, away from the shade of the elms, is a white wooden walking ring that is not being received too well by the people who are used to watching the horses remain under the trees before a race. As John W. Hanes, the president of the New York Racing Association, was saying the other morning, "It isn't going over too well with the public or the horsemen."

The walking ring, however, is not Hanes's biggest problem. This past spring when Ashley Trimble Cole, 83, the chairman of the New York State Racing Commission, came out for concurrent racing in New York City and Saratoga in August, Hanes made an opposing statement. A political furor arose, with upstate legislators finally getting plans for concurrent racing in 1959 shelved. "We," John Hanes says, "have no controversies with the State Racing Commission. I have great respect for Mr. Cole. But bear in mind that we live in a public democracy. To us the horsemen come first, the public comes second and New York State comes third. Mr. Cole's order is the other way around."

Two of Saratoga's strongest supporters, and Jockey Club members as well, expressed strong opinions about concurrent racing. Howell E. Jackson said, "If they ever kill racing in Saratoga, I'll never race in New York again." Standing by his barn the other morning, 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. They have races like the Travers and the Alabama that to me mean more than most of the $100,000 races being run in this country today. If there is concurrent racing in New York State one track has to suffer. Either Aqueduct [the new $33 million track in New York City] or Saratoga will have to run a peanut meeting with cheap horses. Well, it won't be Saratoga. Those people who really and truly are interested in racing will come here."

This week those people who really and truly care for horse racing will have the opportunity to watch the $50,000 Saratoga Handicap, and next week they can see the nation's oldest stakes race, the mile-and-one-quarter Travers. Sword Dancer, Bagdad and Middle Brother will probably have a go at it. In the meantime nearly everyone is watching the 2-year-olds, since Saratoga is traditionally the developing ground of many of the finest 2-year-olds, and watching just a bit more closely than they normally would, since nearly everyone admits that this has been one of the dullest racing seasons in many years. The handicap division is decimated and the 3-year-old division has only one bright light, Sword Dancer. Bug Brush and Silver Spoon, the C. V. Whitney fillies, have not seemed able to match their California form in the East.

The Wheatley Stables' 2-year-old filly, Irish Jay, came off the pace to win one division of the Schuylerville the other afternoon, and Cain Hoy Stable's Make Sail made easy work of the second. Perhaps the best 2-year-old we've seen is Weatherwise, a Tom Fool colt from a Hyperion mare named Sunset III. Weatherwise, flying the Greentree silks, behaved somewhat like his father when he came out for the first time. He won by 10 lengths. On Tuesday there was a 2-year-old filly race that stirred memories. The public bet heavily on a Native Dancer offspring named Faraway Blues. A thing called Recommendation beat her. Recommendation's father was Dark Star.

You know how it is. It's hard to ask time to wait for just one more second. It's hard not to acquiesce to expediency. It's tough to be a race track without escalators, or a band, or a $100,000 race. It seems wrong to be an artistic triumph and a financial mediocrity. But even so, as long as there is still a Saratoga quite a few people hang on.