Saratoga Springs, a solid travel bet

Broadway, Saratoga's main drag, is lined with Victorian Broadway, Saratoga's main drag, is lined with Victorian architecture. (May 17, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Mineral springs, gambling and horses.

In the world-famous thoroughbred racing hotbed of upstate Saratoga Springs, the four-legged stars who have drawn people here since the bloodiest days of the Civil War actually ran third in 19th century tourist preferences.

"The waters brought them first, the casinos second and the horse racing third," said Allan Carter, historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, situated across Union Avenue from historic Saratoga Race Course.

It may have started out trailing the field, but the "sport of kings" soon took the lead and still reigns supreme in Saratoga 150 years after the first thoroughbred races on Aug. 3, 1863. That was just a month after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg ended. A year later, the war was still raging when the second thoroughbred season was held at the newly built racecourse, across the road from the site of the first races.

Barons and bettors

Over the next century and a half, Saratoga's racing has attracted generations of robber barons and blue bloods, gangsters and celebrities, professional gamblers and $2 bettors. It's America's most successful racetrack and its oldest sports venue, a summertime destination that draws visitors from around the world who catch the daily racing card in between soaking up the city's Victorian charms and its upscale 21st century nightlife, shops and restaurants.

Over the summer, Saratoga is celebrating thoroughbred racing's 150th anniversary with events including concerts, exhibits and festivals centered on the racing season, which begin July 19 and run through Labor Day, Sept. 2.

Americans began trekking to Saratoga in the decades before the Civil War, when the many mineral springs dotting the area drew visitors looking for relief from various ailments. A thriving hotel business sprang up along Broadway, Saratoga's main drag.

Entrepreneurs soon began offering other diversions for men bored with the daily rounds of mineral water tastings, cotillions and concerts. Gambling joints sprang up, including casinos owned by John Morrissey, an Irish-born Tammany Hall enforcer-turned-prizefighter-turned-politician. But the gambling dens didn't open until the evening, leaving the afternoon wide open for men with money to wager.

Winners to run

Morrissey filled that void. With the backing of some wealthy businessmen, he held the first thoroughbred races in Saratoga on the outskirts of town. The next summer, they moved the races across Union Avenue to the newly built track, where the races have been run ever since.

Saratoga has hosted many of racing's greatest equine stars, including Man o' War and Secretariat. Many have won here, and nearly as many -- included the aforementioned legends -- have lost here, earning the track the nickname "graveyard of favorites." All three of this year's Triple Crown winners -- Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice -- will run at Saratoga this summer.

The highlight of Saratoga's 40-day meet is the Travers Stakes, being run for the 144th time on Aug. 24. Older than the Kentucky Derby by 11 years, the Travers typically attracts some of racing's top horses. Saratoga hosts other storied races, such as the Alabama and the Whitney, and it's known as the place where the sport's future stars first make their mark racing as 2-year-olds.

The racetrack grounds, with their wooden, open-air grandstand and clubhouse dating back to the 1890s and late 1920s, respectively, give the place its old-time feel, even with such modern additions as New York City-based Shake Shack among concession offerings in the tree-shaded paddock area known as Saratoga's "backyard." Picnic tables are available and trackgoers are allowed to cart their own food and beverages into this popular section.

Charm and culture

Outside the track, Saratoga Springs, a city of 28,000, is known for its Victorian architecture, with examples of Second Empire, Queen Anne and other styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries along Broadway and surrounding tree-lined neighborhoods.

Among the most notable buildings is the casino Morrissey, built in 1870 in what is now downtown's Congress Park. Later renamed Canfield Casino for the professional gambler who purchased the property in the 1890s, the three-story brick Italianate building hasn't been operated as a casino since an anti-gambling crusade shut it down in 1907.

But the city is home to one of the state's nine "racinos," Saratoga Casino and Raceway. The racino has more than 1,700 electronic slot machines, along with electronic roulette and craps, with harness racing most evenings and weekends.

Saratoga is a cultural haven as well. There's the Saratoga Springs History Museum, the National Museum of Dance, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Automobile Museum and the Tang Teaching Museum on Skidmore College's campus, among others. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center hosts the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra in summer.

Saratoga made significant strides in marketing itself into a year-round destination to avoid the boom-and-bust businesses experienced for decades when the racetrack was open only in August. Those efforts, combined with the track's continued popularity, have spurred a recent hotel construction boom, with more on the way. Still, the biggest demand for lodging occurs in the summer racing season, when rates can double -- another Saratoga tradition.

If you go

SARATOGA 150TH Official anniversary website is saratoga150.com.

SARATOGA RACE COURSE Thoroughbred racing daily except Tuesday. Info: nyra.com/saratoga; 516-488-6000 before July 19, 518-584-6200 from July 19 to Sept. 2.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF RACING AND HALL OF FAME Tells the colorful history of the "sport of kings." Info: racingmuseum.org

SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (SPAC) Ballet, orchestral, rap, pop, rock and country concerts through Sept. 5 (Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson). Info: spac.org

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SARATOGA SPRINGS HISTORY MUSEUM Situated in the 1870 Canfield Casino, in downtown Congress Park. "The People Behind the Track: The Founding of Saratoga Race Course" opens July 19. Museum open daily. Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors. Free for children younger than 12. Info: saratogahistory.org

SARATOGA SPA STATE PARK Home to SPAC, Gideon Putnam Resort, Roosevelt Baths and Spa, two public swimming pools, 36-hole golf course, picnic areas and miles of wooded trails amid 2,200 scenic acres. Info: nysparks.com/parks/saratogaspa

GIDEON PUTNAM RESORT A 78-year-old resort hotel with 124 rooms, a bar and a restaurant, in Saratoga Spa State Park. Standard rates double from $200 to $400 and up during racing season. Info at gideonputnam.com

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SARATOGA ARMS This 31-room bed-and-breakfast offers a taste of the Gilded Age in a renovated 1870 building in the heart of downtown. Rates $209-$629. Info: saratogaarms.com

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