There’s a great Carson McCullers story called “The Jockey” that takes place in Saratoga Springs, probably around 60 or 70 years ago. In it a horse trainer makes the comment to a wealthy horse owner that he had heard that “in the month of August Saratoga is the wealthiest town in America per capita.” I don’t have any kind of statistical proof on the claim but I can offer up my own anectdotal evidence after having trekked to “the Spa” every August for the past seven years. Yes, Saratoga Springs has more than its fair share of rich assholes during the month of August, and 2011 was no different.
I’m from a little racetrack town called Hot Springs, Arkansas, another “Spa City” with a similar history as Saratoga Springs but with a very different present day. Hot Springs is no longer a destination for wealthy gamblers, gangsters and grifters. Gone are the casinos and nightclubs that once played host to celebrities and dignitaries. Now it is a very sleepy southern town with a rubber band factory. Hot Springs has a large enough population to support two Waffle Houses but only enough people to support one library. The gamblers, gangsters and grifters are still there, they just aren’t the wealthy kind anymore.
Growing up in Hot Springs put horse racing in my blood. My grandparents landed there as carnies following the horse race circuit. My father grew up in the barns of the backstretch working as a groom and a hotwalker. He started taking me to the track as a child, teaching me to read the Daily Racing Form at the age of nine. Many years ago my father came to visit my wife and me in New York and he only wanted to go one place, to see the fabled Saratoga Race Course. We took him for Travers weekend, the highlight of the four-week race meet, and he was bowled over by the town and the track. “Why couldn’t Hot Springs do this,” he wondered. “This place is awesome. This is what Hot Springs should be like.”
My father saw in Saratoga Springs a charm and atmosphere that was lacking in other “racetrack towns” around the country. What Saratoga Springs had that Hot Springs did not was an abundance of absurdly wealthy people who subsidized this town of 28,000 people eleven months out of the year so they could invade it every August and pretend they were living in the Salad Days.
My wife and I are not rich, but we love Saratoga Springs in August. There is nothing quite like it. People have big porches and they sit on them and drink iced tea and speak to people who walk down the street. It isn’t unusual on a weekday to see a man in a seersucker suit or a woman with a big fancy hat, and neither seem like they’re trying too hard. Musicians are everywhere playing music that often involves a stand-up bass or maybe a clarinet and it isn’t like in the subway where people just walk by or, if they feel generous, stare until the end of the song then toss a dollar into the case. In Saratoga Springs people stop and dance. I know it sounds ridiculous, and it is, but when you’re there it’s hard to feel so cynical and dismissive and Brooklyn about it all.
I mention Brooklyn and the subway because that’s where I live now. Living in Brooklyn gives you a certain worldview that is often unfair or unkind to the rest of the world. But that’s only because everything that is wonderful about Brooklyn is buried beneath everything that sucks about Brooklyn, and we are all oh-so-proud of ourselves for having dug our way out and found it. My wife and I take our vacation in Saratoga Springs for much the same reason that all the rich assholes do. We want to pretend that life is charming and quaint and simple, like we imagine it must have been a long time ago.
This year our Spa vacation involved a trip to the Fasig Tipton yearling sale to watch them auction off baby horses. As a horse racing fan I was looking forward to getting to see some of the potential future stars of the sport, sort of like seeing the NBA draft. However as much as the sale was a fascinating behind-the-scenes experience, it was also a stark reminder at how obnoxiously removed from reality this “game” was. The highlight of the evening was watching celebrity chef Bobby Flay get in a bidding war with Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, over a chestnut colt that had barely learned to walk, let alone run 35 miles an hour. His highness eventually won that battle, and several more throughout the night, spending a total of over $4 million on horses that will each cost several hundred dollars a day to care and feed and may never earn back a single penny. The number of people who can afford such a luxury are very few, and these auctions where sheiks and chefs can bid a horse up to well over its actual value is the reason why.
The next day we went to the track with a group of our friends. It was a pleasant day for August in upstate New York, which meant it wasn’t so oppressively hot if you were in the shade. Saratoga Racecourse has covered grandstands but the entire grounds are outdoors, part of its “old-world charm.” We spread a blanket out on a patch of grass near a giant TV screen by the paddock where the horses are saddled, stuck bottles in the babies’ mouths, bought a bunch of Shake Shack burgers (Danny Meyer has made sure that NYC expats feel at home up here in the Adirondacks by providing them with $7 milkshakes and two-hour lines), cracked open the Daily Race Form and settled in for a day of wager.
The second race of the day was a Maiden Claiming race. A “maiden” is any horse that has never won a race, be it fresh out of training or an 8-year-old nag. Before you can move on to the big-dollar races, you first have to “break your maiden” by winning a maiden race. There are two types of maiden races. A claiming race, like this one, meant your horse was up for sale to anyone who would agree to buy it BEFORE the race is run. These are typically a much cheaper stock of horses than what you would find in the other kind, a Maiden Special Weight race, which is for horses who also haven’t won but aren’t up for sale. The horses who run in Maiden Special Weight races have owners who still believe in them; owners who are proud and dote after their animals like children. The horses in these maiden claiming races have owners whose hearts are filled with regret and doubt; owners who feel some deep shame that they honestly don’t know what to hope for: a win or losing the horse to a claim. The famous handicapper Steve Davidowitz says that the drop from Maiden Special Weight to Maiden Claiming is the largest class drop in all of horse racing. He believes it to be one of the most reliable plays for the gambler, and I agree with him.
I scanned the past performance and pedigree data in the Daily Racing Form and noticed that a horse named Miami Ghost, a three year old gelding (that’s a horse with his balls cut off, so unable to be put out to stud) was making such a class drop on just his second ever race. I also noticed that this particular horse had been “nominated” for the Triple Crown. That means that his owner, the very same owner who evidently paid over $100,000 for him at one of those fancy auctions like the one we went to the night before, and despite the horse’s inability to return any future money in stud fees, paid a hefty sum of money when the horse was just a baby to guarantee that the horse would have the right to compete in the Kentucky Derby when he turned three. This was a horse whose owners once upon a time believed he was destined for real greatness. A son of the great Ghostzapper (yes that is a real horse, and a damn fine one at that), after just one poor showing in his very first race, was now slumming it with these proletariat Maiden Claimers. He was for sale now at the bargain-basement price of $20,000. Who was the owner of this animal whose opinion could have fallen so far so fast? It was none other than Bobby Flay, the very same Bobby Flay I saw the night before rubbing elbows with royalty and throwing six figures at horseflesh like it was nothing. Here was a sure thing if ever I saw one. And the public agreed with me. With 15 minutes left until the race Miami Ghost had been bet down to the 2-1 favorite.
“I’m betting on Bobby Flay’s horse,” I announce to my friends. They don’t even look up from their Racing Forms. Nods and grunts and good lucks arose from the blanket as I got up to go bet. Someone asked me how much I planned to bet. No, it wasn’t my wife, she would never ask such a question before just the second race of the day. It was just a friend who was gauging just how confident I was in my selection. I hedged and told him I’d bet around $10. But as I approached the window, the wad of bills burning a hole in my pocket, I could sense the tingle of action all over me. True, the day was still young, but would I have another sure thing like this today? Surely not, I told myself. When it was finally my turn to bet at the window, I proudly told the teller I wanted $100 to win on Miami Ghost.
I won’t draw out the suspense for nothing. The mutt ran eighth, never even made like he wanted it, just ate dirt all the way around the track. After the race when the horses came back where we were sitting to be unsaddled and lead back to their barns I noticed that Bobby Flay wasn’t with Miami Ghost, son of the great Ghostzapper. Another group of people were leading him away: the poor suckers who bought him for $20,000 before the race, believing him, as I did, to be a class above the other horses. I was so pissed off I could spit. My friend consoled me and said “it was only ten bucks, lighten up.”
At the end of Carson McCuller’s story, the titular working-class jockey joins the rich man and the trainer for dinner at a fancy Saratoga Springs restaurant. He gets soused and starts an argument with them about their aristocratic indifference toward the injuries of a fellow jockey. The argument ends with the jockey spitting on the floor and calling the men “libertines” as he swaggers out of the now-silent restaurant.
The thing about Miami Ghost, about Bobby Flay, about McCuller’s rich man and about Saratoga Springs, is that they all represent a certain kind of mistake that people make all the time. We all mistake expensive for classy. We all think that if something costs a lot of money or someone has a lot of money then somehow they are qualitatively better. This is a fundamental truth of capitalism ingrained in us our entire lives. Expensive-ass horses must be surer-of-foot than plodding claimers. Wealthy-ass resort communities must be more idyllic than working-class rubber-band producing burgs. Rich-ass celebrity chefs and oil oligarchs must be smarter than paddock-dwelling punters.
The wonderful thing about horse racing is how it both supports and exposes this lie. Blue collar horses like the $10,000 New York bred Funny Cide can beat million dollar bluegrass horses with fancy pedigrees and win the Kentucky Derby. Bobby Flay can screw up and spend a fortune on a bum that’s headed straight for the glue factory. The wise guys and the weekend warriors at the track that Saturday could bet Miami Ghost down to the chalk only to watch him go for a long walk. And Saratoga Springs, as beautiful and charming and libertine as it is for one month out of the year, it still only has one library the other eleven.