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The track season is winding down, and soon the sound and fury of this unusually exciting season (thanks, Funny Cide) will fade into memory. Fans here in the area will trudge through a Capital Region winter drawing nourishment from sunny recollections of mimosas in the clubhouse, adventurous hats and the all-too rare trifecta score. The Spa City will once again revert ownership to the full-time residents and Skidmore students, as the dedicated day-trippers and summering city folk return to their own routines.

Those of us with year-round access to Saratoga Springs have observed that cycle season after season, and whatever our personal opinions—the eager anticipation of the amateur gambler, the hair-pulling frustration of the townie overrun by tourists, the mercantile glee of the local with a front yard/parking lot near the track—they likely are fairly constant. Little has changed in recent years. But thumbing back through the chapters of Saratoga’s equicentric history, back before New York state agencies were established to regulate the now innocent-seeming pastime of pinning your cash on the hopes that one animal is fleeter than another of its species, Saratoga had a different vibe, more Guys and Dolls than Hats Off Saratoga.

As late as 1956, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, characterized Saratoga Springs in less than fond terms: It’s “a stinking town, but then all gambling towns are,” he wrote in Diamonds Are Forever. Stinking town? Even taking into account a little Rule Britannia-jingoism, that sentiment seems off the beam a bit. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about Atlantic City, right?

According to author David Pietrusza, however, there was a time when Saratoga Springs was a prime playing ground for not only America’s royalty, but for some of the shadiest characters ever to roll a die, fix a fight or sap a sucker for the bankroll in his pocket.

Some of the biggest names in the underworld operated out of Saratoga, at least briefly: Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, for example. In the early ’30s Lansky owned a luxurious casino, called the Piping Rock, in Saratoga.

Long before these celebrated tough guys rolled into town, though, there was a lesser-known character pulling the strings. A shadowy figure who, by and large, has escaped the cinematic portrayals that have made names like Bugsy Siegel so widely known: Arnold Rothstein.

“He was played by David Janssen [in 1961’s King of the Roaring Twenties—the Story of Arnold Rothstein],” Pietrusza laughs. “This is not immortality.”

The onetime cigar salesman’s low profile is particularly surprising given the audacity of some of his crimes. The subtitle of Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series alludes to one of the Brain’s (as he was known to admiring contemporaries) most famous schemes, a scheme to which even baseball fans might be slow to attach Rothstein’s name.

There is some confusion as to just how the whole caper went down; some contend that Rothstein merely encouraged the fix to happen, but didn’t actually engineer the Black Sox scandal. Pietrusza, however, says this was precisely Rothstein’s gift as a criminal: He put things in motion, often by bankrolling criminal undertakings with the sizeable holdings accrued from the casinos he ran in Long Island and later in Saratoga, and he protected himself with caution and political connections.

“He was Dr. Moriarty,” Pietrusza says, referring to Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis. “He was behind everything, and he scoped things out very carefully and logically.”

Furthermore, Rothstein was “the go-to guy between the police, Tammany Hall and the gambling element,” and he maintained that close connection to the powers-that-be when, in 1919, he opened his own casino in Saratoga.

Pietrusza reports in his book that Rothstein fostered and maintained these connections in the same manner he promulgated illicit ventures: You’ve got to spend money to make money, after all. So, the way for the lavish Brook casino, originally on Church Street, was paved with a $10,000 donation to Saratoga Springs Democratic boss Dr. Arthur J. Leonard and another $60,000 to a group of powerful Republicans. As if that wasn’t enough, on the advice of a veteran gambler named Jules Hormel, Rothstein plunked down another $60,000 in the lap of District Attorney Charles B. Andrus, which ensured that the Brook knew well in advance of any raids. (It’s interesting to note that later, during an investigation of official corruption spearheaded by Gov. Alfred E. Smith, Hormel spilled, and Andrus failed to get renominated. Rothstein, however, remained untouched and unquestioned.)

Pietrusza comments that it may well have been Rothstein’s example that motivated his later peers Luciano and Lansky to go so posh: Rothstein is reported to have said to Damon Runyon (on whose works Guys and Dolls was based), “People like to think they’re better than other people. As long as they’re willing to pay to prove it, I’m willing to let them.”

Accordingly, the Brook was the epitome of high style—a kind of “Gilded Age hangover,” says Pietrusza. The casino—which burned to the ground under a new owner in 1934—boasted a billiard room furnished in leather, a south-facing sun parlor, a terra-cotta-tiled breakfast room graced with an impressive fireplace, massive mahogany furniture of “odd design,” and free limousine service. All of which contributed to a sumptuous atmosphere in which swells and infamous gamblers such as “Subway” Sam Rosoff and “Nick the Greek” Dandolos (who once lost $70,000 playing roulette by phone, incapacitated by a sprained knee) happily enriched Rothstein.

By today’s standards, Rothstein seems an entrepreneur of a Trumplike stripe. But to underscore the ways in which the gambler’s life has changed—at least in Saratoga Springs—Pietruska relates that some years after selling the Brook and heading back to his native New York City, the Brain was found murdered after failing to pay a $300,000 gambling debt (a debt racked up in a single evening of cards).

“Gambling is an interesting intersection of snobbery, ostentation and greed,” Pietrusza observes of the days when Rothstein ruled. And, in a still timely aside, he notes, “Is it a sport? Well, that really depends on whether you’re winning or losing.”

This Week in Saratoga

Thursday, Aug. 28

The Holiday Inn at Saratoga, 232 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8:30 PM: Hollywood Comics Invade Saratoga. Three nationally-known comics. $15. Ages 18 and up. 584-6511.

Friday, Aug. 29

The Holiday Inn at Saratoga, 232 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8:30 PM: Hollywood Comics Invade Saratoga. Three nationally-known comics. $15. Ages 18 and up. 584-6511.

Saturday, Aug. 30

Craven Books, 441 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/30, 6 PM: Local author Greta Eichel will sign copies of her book Surviving Ellen. 583-0025.

Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 1, except Tuesdays.

Location Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $8 clubhouse, children under 12 free: seats are $5 and $8, respectively.

Parking $7 per car at the main gate and $5 across Union Avenue at the Oklahoma Training Track.

Racing At least nine races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time 1 PM

Major Stakes Races Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 30).

Promotional Item Giveaways T-shirt (Aug. 31).

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