Cars, Cigars, Horses And Money: Conspicuous Consumption At The Saratoga Race Course

   on July 28 2012 1:21 PM

Forget 8.2 percent unemployment. Ignore the GDP's falling growth rate. Stop stressing about the growing divide between the so-called 1 percent and the 99 percent.

There are 350 acres in upstate New York where conspicuous consumption, summer after ostentatious summer, is par for the course ... the Saratoga Race Course, that is. And it's been that way for all or parts of three centuries.

Saratoga Springs, site of the nation's oldest organized sporting venue, is not just an off-limits reserve of America's old money. It's equal parts blue blood and blue collar, a nearly 150-year-old tie, located along the Hudson River, that binds the 1 percent and the 99 percent. It's an aspirational place where spending money for the hell of it is an honored tradition and being seen is more important than winning your bets.

"They come for the ambience of everybody -- forty days is like forty days of heaven for some people," New York Racing Association security guard Bob Kinney said as he manned the VIP entrance to the track.

Being Seen, Making Bets

To enter the track, visitors pass through the main gates of the Victorian-era grandstand, pay a small fee and then get corralled off into sections of the paddock space, grandstand or clubhouse. Most people park their cars in lots a few blocks back from the track or in the yards of houses where locals sell parking places for five bucks. However, for a select few, special parking places are reserved around the circle of flowers and jockey statues in front of the gates. There, Saratoga's wealthiest attendees park Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins, classic BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Bentleys and the like before going through a special VIP gate where most are recognized and ushered through on sight.

For Saratoga's high society, it's about being seen, especially on July 20, the storied track's opening day.

"It's just seeing everybody that you haven't seen in a while. Everybody gets to dress up, wear a hat, and it's the only place to be, Saratoga," said Julia Johnson, wife of Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson.

The mayor of nearby Albany, N.Y., agreed.

"I get to see people I haven't seen all year, people come here from all over, and I've been coming here for many years. It's nice to see people come back, and support racing and really have a good time," Mayor Gerald Jennings said.

The track has an undeniable high society heritage. The front and center box is reserved for the so-called "Queen of Saratoga" and scion of the Vanderbilt-Whitney fortune (estimated at around $100 million in 1992), Marylou Whitney. Darci Kistler, the New York City American Ballet star and former pupil of famed choreographer George Balanchine, sat in a box nearby with her daughter.

Besides the glitterati, opening day is regularly attended by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, his son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and various U.S. senators and representatives. New York's political elite have been fixtures at the track for years.

Many of the VIPs appear willing to put serious money at risk.

"What am I doing? What's it look like I'm doing? I'm making money," said Jennings, without turning his gaze from the track as he sat in his reserved box.

Tailgating Without Wagers

Outside of the breezy, rarefied world of the grandstand, the majority of track-goers sit around picnic tables and on lawn chairs in the dusty lots behind the grandstand. There, the atmosphere is more carnival than gala, and beer and hot dogs reign supreme. While a few hundred wealthy and influential socialites and politicians rub shoulders in the clubhouse, thousands of ordinary track-goers spend their days in the sun, jockeying for spots where they can see the track or, more often, TVs showing the races. The only exceptions to the strict social stratification at Saratoga are the journalists who move around throughout the different areas but are not allowed to sit in the shaded grandstands or boxes.

The majority of regular track-goers at Saratoga, unlike the VIPs, seemed less interested in betting on the races than in tailgating.

"Great spread, a lot of good horse betting. I kept my money close to my pocket, didn't want to bet a lot, but the tailgate scene is awesome," track-goer Artie Roberts said. "I've not made any wagers yet ... I've got a couple of dollars I'm willing to spend on the bets if need be."

Since most Saratoga visitors can't place large wagers, and many don't make wagers at all, what draws people to the track must be something other than the racing -- but what is it? Why do thousands pay to get into the race course to sit on lawn chairs and drink beer without even being able to see the races?

Cigars and Aspirations

A clue to what makes the average track-goer tick may be offered by cigar sales. The Albany-based Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe operates two cigar stands at the track. Cigars are a fundamental part of the "rich history at the track," according to General Manager Zach Medwin. As he talks, a steady stream of people, mostly men, stop at the tent to buy cigars. Habana sells its cigars at the track for a premium, the cheapest being eight dollars, and more expensive ones easily surpass $20. The customers, though, come not only from the clubhouse high rollers, but also the beer-swilling groundlings. The best-selling cigars at the track are made with mild tobacco, unlike the best-sellers at Habana's Albany smoke shop.

"Mild cigars are some of the better cigars, because some people don't smoke regularly, but they associate it with the track," Medwin said.

Cigars have long been associated with wealth and profligacy. In Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," the rich and crooked Mr. Potter offers Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey a cigar when he tries to woo him away from the lowly Building and Loan. A defining image of the Gilded Age and the conspicuous consumption of the 1920s is that of wealthy bankers and industrialists lighting cigars with $100 bills.

Yet, despite their association with wanton spending and disregard for money, cigars are also celebratory, handed out by happy new fathers in hospitals and grooms at weddings, and to mark other important occasions. People smoke cigars at the track "because people are here celebrating the good life," Medwin said. Cigars are inextricably associated with unfettered wealth and celebration. Likewise, the track.

While New York's wealthy and powerful come to Saratoga to see, be seen and flaunt their wealth, the majority of attendees come to be near the wealth, pageantry and conspicuous consumption. People who do not normally smoke will buy a cigar, people without money to bet will sit in the sun by the track, and everyone looks at the luxury cars at the gates.

At the track, the rich place bets, the poor smoke cigars and the reporters drive fancy cars and visit the clubhouse but aren't allowed to stay. Everyone at Saratoga on opening weekend, though, was there to experience a touch of wealth. On July 12, Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested in Zuccotti Park after marching through New York's financial district to protest big banks and income inequality. A week later, thousands gathered at Saratoga to celebrate wealth.

Saratoga's boosters speak about the tradition of the track. But a tradition just refers to something that happens every year. The reason it happens every year, though, the reason why thousands gather at the track, is to celebrate the lifestyle of the super-rich for a brief period each summer. While streets fill with protesters and TV pundits debate the role of money in politics, it can be refreshing to gather at the track, marvel at the expensive cars and big hats, and pretend to be wealthy for a moment while smoking a mild cigar.

"They come to the track because they get the full experience that you really can't duplicate or replicate any place else," Mayor Johnson said. "It's excitement. Even if you only bet a dollar on a race, it gives you a lot of action for only one dollar."

Join the Discussion