Saratoga Springs: Culture, Horse Racing, And Style

The Travers at Saratoga Race
The Travers at Saratoga Race. Photos courtesy of ILoveNY and Cathie Arquilla

By Cathie Arquilla
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964
Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964

Off to the races, spa, ballet, springs, shops, and restaurants. Off to Saratoga Springs, New York, to dive deep into culture, events, sports, and Gilded Age luxury.

Saratoga is the story of thoroughbreds, horses, and people who chose the lake and the springs to “take the waters” for health and beauty. They laid a foundation for a rich horse racing culture that thrives to this day.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame calls Saratoga home—because these Empire State folks were the first to build it! Horse racing may be the heart of Saratoga, but its appeal extends far beyond, captivating culture vultures and naturalists alike.

If Ballet or Music is your Thing

Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) hosts the New York City Ballet in July, the Philadelphia Orchestra in August, and Live Nation popular music throughout the summer.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Performing Arts Center

If that’s not enough, Diana Gilbert, part-time Saratoga resident, artist, and culture hound, says, “It’s truly a cultural paradise!” Mentioning the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, and Opera Saratoga.

The refurbished Universal Preservation Hall further colors Saratoga’s musical landscape, featuring notables like trumpeter/composer Chris Botti and Lyle Lovett. For those who love folk music, Caffè Lena has been showcasing talent for decades. They also have after-school programs and camps for anyone wanting to study fiddle, ukulele, banjo, and all the strings in between.

But guess who is coming to Saratoga for the next couple of years? The Belmont Stakes! Around this world-class horse racing event, the last of the Triple Crown, Saratoga has a plethora of fetes and festivals to mark the 156th anniversary of this legendary race.

Saratoga will be home to the Bellmont Stakes through 2025
Morning workout at Saratoga racetrack.

Saratoga hosts The Belmont Stakes through 2025

Let me give you a leg up if you’re a horse racing novice. The Belmont Stakes are usually held at Belmont Park in Long Island, New York. This track is getting a big purse makeover and is expected to reopen in 2026. In the meantime, Saratoga is home to the Stakes.

Of the first 20 Kentucky Derbys 15 of them were won by black jockeys.
Of the first 20 Kentucky Derbys 15 of them were won by black jockeys–Horse Racing Museum educating visitors.

Yes! Visit the Hall of Fame.

Going to the National Horse Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Saratoga is an absolute must-do… It’s like going to any sports or music hall of fame; you just don’t know what you don’t know.

I’m not a country music fan, but I was fully engaged at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. So again, if there is a hall of fame in your travels, go!

At Saratoga’s racing museum, through a fabulous tour by Museum Educator Matt Reiche, I learned that “Saratoga,” (I’m speaking of the race track across the street from the museum, which, by the way, is the oldest Thoroughbred racing track in America) has a reputation as “The graveyard of champions.” Generally, it is the place where great horses go to lose.

Famously winning horses like Man of War lost once at Saratoga. After winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat lost once across the street; American Pharoah lost there, too. More recently, the owner of Triple Crown Winner Justified decided the horse needed a rest…and didn’t take his chances at Saratoga.

Like Eliza Doolittle, you might be screaming, “Move your bloomin’ arse!”

Given that The Belmont Stakes is at Saratoga, there might be some finish-line surprises this year. The Saratoga track requires the race to be a quarter of a mile shorter than the grueling distance at Belmont, which has been referred to as the Test of the Champion. Yet horseracing is about so much more than the race—it’s a whole culture of fabulousness!

Starting with what to wear.

You’ll find out from the Discover Saratoga App that the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will host a Belmont Gala, one of many events during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival from June 6th to the 9th.

I envision ladies in gowns with graphic accents, perhaps in black and white (checks!), or borrowing from the silks jockeys wear with punchy color combinations. The official drink of the Belmont Stakes is the Belmont Jewel, so richly colored jewel-toned gowns would be lovely. Or go with the color of Bourbon Whiskey or a horse paddock—wear a brown gown!

This fashion stylist (slash) travel writer digresses. If you didn’t exactly pack for the races or a racing event, the city of Saratoga Springs has stores, lots of them, to get you on track.

Hats, facinators, bowlers, boaters, homburgs, and fedoras at Hatsational
Hats, fascinators, bowlers, boaters, homburgs, and fedoras at Hatsational

Shop Saratoga! Go the distance on Broadway.

Start with Hatsational, a fabulous haberdashery with a hat to top off any occasion or outfit for both men and women. If you want to be educated in appropriate chapeau, fit, and facts, take the time to discuss the best shapes and styles for your head and your budget with the salespeople.

Continue down Broadway, dipping in and out of stores for everything from olive oil to rare books. Drop into Spoken Boutique on Chruch Street for cheerful pieces to take you to the races, springs, parks, or a picnic.

Traditional mineral baths at The Gideon Putnam at Roosevelt Baths & Spa
Traditional mineral baths at The Gideon Putnam at Roosevelt Baths & Spa

A warm bath in a cool place.

Shopped enough? Put pretend blinkers on your eyes, like a horse wears during a race, and head to the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa for a relaxing treatment.

Fun fact gathered from the racing museum: A horse’s field of vision is about three hundred degrees, with blind spots under the nose and behind the hind quarters.

If the horse tends to spook easily (sometimes they’ll do that with their own shadow), trainers will use blinkers over the horse’s eyes to help the horse focus on what’s ahead–the track and the finish line.

Luxury spas nowadays offer everything from seaweed wraps to mud baths to stone and aromatherapy massages. The Gideon Putnam at Roosevelt Baths & Spa offers all these treatments, too, but their mineral baths seem relevant in this crazy digital world.

Mineral Baths are known to have healing properties that boost blood circulation, relieve skin conditions and arthritic pain, boost immunity, and relax your mind.

Immerse yourself in healing waters.

So step in and soak. Taking the waters in this historic bathhouse, built in 1935, brings you back to the 1930s! The bathing rooms are institutional, yes, but the spa attendant’s welcoming tone and explanation about the medicinal qualities of the bath, as well as the warm towels, candles, and soft music, make for a calming, unique experience.

The water is comfortable at 97-100 degrees. It’s a mixture of hot fresh water and cold mineral “Saratoga” water that has been piped in. The bottom of the bath is lower than the floor. So you plop (or glide, depending) into a very big, deep bath, but the minerals make you more buoyant than a regular bath. It feels like you are bathing in a slightly flat Champagne, but the water is more like the color of blonde beer.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Geyser Springs Area And Hike
Saratoga Spa State Park, Geyser Springs Area And Hike

The secrets behind the springs.

Saratoga is all about springs (thus the name), and there are 21 to visit, discover, and taste. Each has been attributed to different remedies. For example, Hathorn #1 is for hangovers. Old Red Spring is for skin maladies and enhancements. Stop by the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center to get a map of the springs and learn everything you’d ever want to know about the history of Saratoga Springs springs. They also offer 90-minute walking tours, which is always a great way to get acquainted with a town or city new to you.

The Hollywood-esque bathroom at the historic Adelphi Hotel
The Hollywood-esque bathroom at the historic Adelphi Hotel

Step into the Gilded Age in Saratoga.

If you’re a fan of HBO’s Gilded Age show, Saratoga is a perfect place to experience the era. All you need are some puffy sleeves for her and a striped blazer or waistcoat (vest) for him.

Then, head to the divine Adelphi Hotel and check-in. If that is not doable, a cocktail at Adelphi’s Morrissey’s Lounge & Bistro will suffice (almost).

Since its founding in 1877, The Adelphi has experienced many iterations but remains Saratoga society and luxury hub.

Recently refurbished, my room had every modern facility, complete with a Cadillac-of-a-toilet that heated, sprinkled, and blew! The room, the bed, and the accoutrements were sublime.

History buffs will also appreciate The Coat Rooms speakeasy vibes. The drinks are creative and yummy, and the cocktail menu even entertains!

Wonderful Tonight–Gin, Rhubarb, Elderflower, Lemon, Egg White
“So I give her the car keys, and she helps me to bed.”

Pickel Peddler–Tequila, Pickle Juice, Lime, Agave
“Cleopatra said pickles kept her young and beautiful.”

This is a lounge-ie sexy restaurant. Paneled walls of slate grey, saddle-colored banquettes, brass, and copper finishings make any party of two feel like they are having a clandestine meeting in a prohibition-era nightclub. Smoochy.

Breakfast gals at Sweet Mimi's Cafe
Breakfast gals at Sweet Mimi’s Cafe

Go there hungry

In the light of day, head to Sweet Mimi’s Cafe & Bakery to sample Chef Jeannette Leibers’ award-winning treats and hearty fare. Chef Jeanette had the opportunity to Beat Food Network’s Bobby Flay– and that she did!

It was a Lemon Ricotta flap jack throwdown that is now the stuff of Saratoga legend. Be prepared to wait outside for a table. You’re at 47 Phila Street, a building that has housed female business owners since 1938.

Saratoga Springs beckons with its history, culture, romance, and landscape, making it a city to experience once or time and time again.

Saratoga Springs should be a destination for international travelers. It offers so much American history and culture, with a backdrop of your choice–waterfalls or opera houses. It’s an ideal vacation destination for out-of-staters and a terrific place to have a second (or first!) home.

Did you know… Jockeys do not have close personal relationships with the horses they race. They can easily ride 3000 horses in a year. The exercise rider and trainer give the horse over to the jockey to race. Often, there is no practice with the horse; they just get on and ride. (Another tidbit harnessed from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame)

I recommend you do the same with Saratoga Springs: Show up, dress up, get on your metaphorical racehorse, and ride!

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