Day 6 – Biking in Saratoga

Until last year Mondays in Saratoga were spent at the track as the 40-day meet at Saratoga started the last full week of July through Labor Day with races running six days a week, with Tuesday being the day off. In 2019, NYRA decided to start the meet a week earlier and run only five days a week, giving trainers, jockeys and race track personnel an extra day of rest.

If the weather forecast is good we will make Monday our biking day, but if there is rain in the forecast we delay this treat until Tuesday. With no races scheduled we usually are the only guests at Circular Manor, so breakfast will be quiet but still delicious.

After a slow-paced morning with no workouts to attend or racing forms to peruse, we get started on our two-part bike trip. Usually we spend the morning exploring all the streets between Circular Street, where the Manor sits, and East Avenue, just east of the race track. These are quiet, residential streets with a mix of grand mansions and small houses. Many of the smaller houses are rented out during the summer by the week or for the whole 40-day meet. We are always impressed by the neatly kept gardens of even the smallest homes. The flowers are always beautiful, and the town seems to grow the biggest hostas I’ve ever seen.

When we get to East Avenue, we ride our bikes by the Oklahoma Training Track, which is used only for training purposes. Some morning workouts are run here, especially if a horse needs training on the turf. NYRA doesn’t want the turf course at the main track chopped up in the mornings by training. Why is this track called Oklahoma? Apparently years ago, someone complained about the track being so far away from the main track that “it might as well be in Oklahoma,” and the nickname stuck. Actually it is not that far from the main track, just a block and half, and there are many stables, called Horse Haven, surrounding the Oklahoma track. When we ride our bikes by these stables in the morning, we can often see horses’ heads sticking out of the stalls resting and munching hay after their morning exercise.

We always ride our bikes on some of the residences north of the Oklahoma track. These are newer houses, some in a Cape Cod style, some very simple, others more lavish. Many have back porches that are adjacent to the Oklahoma, so the owners can sit on their back decks in the morning sipping coffee and watching horses work out. What a life!

After touring these areas, we always end up at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. We are supporting members of the museum and make a point of touring it every year. They often have interesting new exhibits, and in the Hall of Fame, they have plaques for the horses, jockeys, and trainers who have been elected to the Hall of Fame over the years. They often have interesting programs with retired and active jockeys and trainers and an occasional seminar on betting the ponies. Of course, we can’t leave without visiting the gift shop.

After the museum, we head to another of our favorite spots in Saratoga, the Saratoga Spa State Park. There are several ways to get to the park, but the easiest on bike is to go south on Lincoln Avenue, the route we take to morning workouts at the track, and then cut through another residential neighborhood.

The park contains over 2,300 acres filled with tall pine trees, many historic structures from the 1930s, two golf courses, a resort hotel, two public swimming pools, hiking trails, bike paths, and much more. One of the unique features of the park is a dozen mineral springs, remnants of the historic feature that first made Saratoga a resort destination in the 1800’s. In the late 19th century, the springs were used to extract carbonic acid gas, which was used to carbonate sodas. At one point there were 200 wells in operation in the area, which unfortunately led to the flow of many springs ceasing. In 1908 the state of New York passed an anti-pumping law. When the manufacturing plants ceased operation, the area was vacant.

During the early stages of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, started a construction project to build new spa buildings to house public baths and landscaping similar to famous European spas. Most of these buildings still exist, though converted to other purposes. One interesting building is the Spa Little Theater, which in the 1930’s through 1950’s attracted famous actors to what was known as the “straw-hat theater circuit” (summer theaters at popular resorts in New York and New England). Actors such as Ethel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Bela Lugosi, and many more appeared on the Little Theater’s stage. Today a group called the Home Made Theater performs there in the fall, winter and spring.

For lunch we stop at a building called the Victoria Pools and have lunch poolside at a cafĂ© named Catherine’s. Then we get back on our bikes and explore the park, visiting as many different springs as we can. Each has a distinctive taste. Some seem like clear seltzer water, while others are heavily sulfured and barely palatable.

We also ride by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which was built in 1966. It is similar to Wolf Trap, with an amphitheater, covered seating and an extensive lawn seating with a varied summer program, including the New York City Ballet, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and popular bands, such as Dave Matthews.

Then we ride through the deeper sections of the park, where they have large picnic pavilions and hiking trails along large streams and more springs. We usually park our bikes and walk one of the steeper trails.

Occasionally we have stopped at the National Museum of Dance, which is located in a former bathhouse. They often have interesting exhibits on the history of dance and an interesting small gift shop.

Then it’s back on the bikes, and we return to Circular Manor. By the time our day is done we have usually biked over 20 miles. Now it’s time for a refreshing shower and dressing for dinner. Tonight we will go to a restaurant called 15 Church, which has a wonderfully diverse menu.

The song in today’s video is “Let the Big Horse Run” by John Stewart, which is about Secretariat, whose statue stands outside of the National Museum of Racing. The movie is Saratoga Trunk (1945), which includes scenes at the town’s famous springs.