The History Of Saratoga Racetrack takes a look at one of the big three of New York’s Thoroughbred Racetracks. While Belmont and Aqueduct Racetracks open during the Fall, Winter, Spring, and early summer months, Saratoga is open for one short season during the second half of summer. For horseracing fans, there’s nothing quite as exciting as being at the track, watching their favorite horse and jockey team run down the home stretch, leading the way, as they approach the finish line. It’s even more eventful when there is at least another dynamic duo that’s racing alongside them, neck and neck. On August 3, 1863, the racetrack’s legacy began when John Morrissey organized a thoroughbred race at an old dirt track on Union Avenue. What began as a four-day event that included over five thousand on-site betters and spectators quickly became one of the most prestigious racetracks in history.
Long before Saratoga Springs developed one of the three tracks belonging to the Triple Crown circuit, this fourteenth-century community has a rich history of its own worth sharing. Did you know once upon a time this was an area that was regarded for the healing properties of its mineral springs? This was a territory the Native Americans already knew about long before European settlers migrated to the state we know today as New York.
Saratoga Springs technically got its start on August 14, 1847, when entrepreneurs George Cole and Alfonso Patten opened a trotting course. The first race was run and won by Lady Suffolk, the same horse that was featured in Stephen Foster’s folk song, “The Old Gray Mare.”
Among the wealthier members of American society, Saratoga Springs grew in popularity as an escape away from the hustle and bustle of nearby cities. For some, they became permanent residents while others treated the location as an occasional retreat. This was especially the case during the American Civil War from 1861 until 1865. It was during this time there was a search for something that would take the troubles of the war away, even if it was for just a few short minutes. For the men and women at that time, betting on and watching horses speed around the track was one of the best ways to do it.
From 1847 until 1862, horseracing in Saratoga was sporadic at best. This changed after the summer of 1863 when John Morrissey arranged a thoroughbred race in Saratoga Springs. This came a month after the Battle of Gettysburg in a meet that witnessed Lizzie W. win a best-of-three series of races against Captain Moore. Immediately after the success of this race, he teamed up with John R. Hunter, William Travers, and Leonard Jerome to form the Saratoga Association.
This was a community that originally started out as a humble little village but quickly grew into a bustling town that would eventually become a city. This is the same Morrissey who went from boxer to gambler to casino owner to congressman.
Saratoga Racetrack began to take on physical form after Morrissey purchased 125 acres of land along Union Avenue. Between the old course that became the barn area known as Horse Haven and a newly built grandstand, the legacy of this community’s infamous race course began to take shape as a world-class facility.
Established in 1864, the Saratoga Racing Association’s The Travers has since become the oldest major horseracing event in the country. Named after William Travers, this race has brought together the best three-year-old horses from all over to compete in a race that’s also known as the Midsummer Derby. Aside from 1896, 1898, 1899, and 1900, the Travers has been held each year as one of Saratoga’s premier racing events. Of the four years it wasn’t run, there were financial issues involved that prevented this high-stakes race from happening.
Over the course of time, some of the greatest thoroughbreds raced their way into legendary status on Saratoga’s oval race course. Horses such as Affirmed, American Pharoah, Curlin, Gallant Fox, Rachel Alexandra, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat each made their mark as champions of the track.
One horse, in particular, Whirlaway, is so far the only Triple Crown champion to date that has also won Saratoga’s Travers Stakes. This historical event came on August 16, 1941, ten days after a dramatic photo finish in the Saranac prep race against Sam Riddle’s War Relic before moving on to this Midsummer Derby. Ten days after this race, Whirlaway ran the Travers on a track that was knee-deep in mud. Just like the race he and his jockey, Alfred Robertson experienced, Whirlaway sped past the rest of the horses that were in front of him to win the Travers. These two wins were both historical as his usual rider, Eddie Arcaro, was out on suspension and was unable to race in Saratoga at the time.
Have you ever wondered how “upset victory” became such a favorite term used when the least likely champion comes out on top to defeat what was supposed to be a sure bet? That began at the Saratoga Race Course when the unbeatable two-year-old Man o’War lost at the Sanford Memorial Stakes to a young colt named Upset.
That fateful August 1919 afternoon was the one and only time Man o’War lost a thoroughbred race in his career. He ran twenty-one of them, amassing almost a quarter million dollars in purse winnings that would be the equivalent of four million dollars today.
Despite Man o’War’s iconic status that is well deserving to say the least, that one race he lost proved to be the one that would stand out in the history books. His nemesis, Upset, also wound up in the history books but not necessarily as the horse behind the surprise victory. He became a legend in his own right, literally starting a popular term that has a track record of its own.
No matter what the sport, “upset” and “upset victory” have consistently been referenced each time the underdog has defeated the top dog, so to speak. For a gambler who risks a bet on these unlikely heroes, the payoff is much greater. Among sports fans, simply watching the least likely heroes come out on top before a shocked crowd is both exciting and priceless at the same time.
Man o’War wasn’t the only thoroughbred to experience the curse of a loss by an underdog. In 1930, Triple Crown champ, Gallant Fox, experienced a shocking loss to a certain horse named Jim Dandy. Over time, Saratoga Racetrack was also nicknamed “The Graveyard of Champions.” Even the sensational Secretariat wasn’t immune as he lost to Onion in the 1973 Whitney Handicap.
More recently, 2015 Triple Crown champ, American Pharoah, experienced the curse of an unexpected loss to the underdog at the time, Keen Ice. However, for Keen Ice and his jockey, Javier Castellano, it was their fifth win at the Travers Stake, which set a new record.
The cultural impact Saratoga Racetrack has had on Americans, as well as the rest of the world, is significant, to say the least. The racetrack itself is considered the oldest major sporting venue in American history that’s still in operation. It also remains one of the most popular.
Because of Saratoga’s popularity, as well as the world’s oldest sport, the entertainment industry capitalized on an opportunity to appease the fans with its filmmaking talent that included epic movies focused on some of the greatest racehorses ever known. Whether the stories told were fictional or historical, the inspiration was drawn from New York’s urban gem, along with the legends that raced there.
When Saratoga wasn’t part of the movie script, it would be a favorite subject to write about among authors, journalists, and poets. Even in music, instrumental and lyrical tales have been told about the racetrack and some of its shining stars. One example of this includes 2001’s Don’t Tell the Band album from the American rock group, Widespread Panic. “Action Man” was a song that revolved around the mighty Man o’War.
Over time, Saratoga’s racetrack has adapted according to the everchanging dynamics society has brought since the 1860s. However, Saratoga’s saga was built and maintained by appreciating what matters most. The popularity of the venue wasn’t simply because it was a luxurious retreat for horse enthusiasts. It was because it still holds true to its original roots.
Throughout the 1950s, the summers at Saratoga drew in daily crowds of at least ten thousand people. In April 1957, a concerned two-year-old Greater New York Association signed a bill that prohibited a simultaneous downstate meet at the Spa. Governor Averill Harriman also signed as law a minimum of twenty-four days of racing at Saratoga’s racetrack.
One hundred years after Saratoga became a permanent racetrack, the installment of Northway literally paved the way for better automobile access to the track from Albany’s New York State Thruway. As the course itself has undergone a series of renovations and upgrades, the dedication it has to respect history for what it is instead of sweeping it under the rug is remarkable. It also knows without the fans who visit the facility, there wouldn’t be a Saratoga Racetrack still in operation today. One example is Travers Canoe, which floats on the infield’s pond as it reminds visitors who won the racetrack’s big race the previous year.
Discussing the history of Saratoga Racetrack without bringing up the 1962 Travers Stakes wouldn’t be complete without sharing the tale about Jaipur and Ridan. These two slugged it out on the most epic Spa Saturday the track in Saratoga Springs ever had. Before a crowd of 26,183 people, these elite colts were about to turn this ninety-three-year-old race into what many regards as one of the greatest sporting moments in American history.
Before the rivals met, George D. Widener’s Jaipur took the Flash and Hopeful at the Spa in the summer and was on a five-race winning streak. This included a victory at Belmont before entering the 1962 Travers. As fate had it, Mrs. Moody Jolley’s Ridan was also a contender for the same Travers Stakes after winning Florida Derby’s Arlington Classic and Blue Grass Stakes. Among horseracing fans who knew about these two horses, this was a race that came with high expectations. Furthermore, tradition also had it Travers was well-known for making unforgettable impressions.
Straight out of the starting gate, Jaipur and Ridan gave every spectator who watched this epic event an exciting run for their money, literally. The Spa’s oval witnessed the 1¼-mile race feature Ridan and his jockey, Manuel Ycaza, take a half-length lead into the first turn of the race while Jaipur and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker, lurked for an opportunity to take that lead away. When both horses approached the backstretch, it came down to a battle between two horses who refused to ease up. Despite going wide on the race’s final turn, Jaipur’s determination to overcome Ridan’s might forced what became a photo finish to see who won the race. The win earned Jaipur the title of 1962 U.S. Champion 3-Year-Old Horse.
Hey There, Fillies!
Adding to Saratoga’s legacy, as well as the Travers, there were three notable fillies that proved even the ladies possess championship qualities. The first of the three was Hall of Famer filly, Ruthless. She won her epic race in 1867. In 1895, it was Liza besting the rest. 1915 witnessed Lady Rotha also win the Travers, proving to the “boys” that “girls” know how to win a race, too.
As with the case of many sagas, Saratoga also experienced a hiccup when a 1921 Travers Stakes betting practice became a source of scandal. At the time, bookmaking was the main method used to bet on horse races. In the story, there was a filly named Prudery who was owned by Harry Payne Whitney. She was destined to be the odds-on-favorite to win. However, Arnold Rothstein’s cold, Sporting Blood, was deemed to likely cross the finish line behind her. As the big race day approached, Rothstein learned key information about Prudney that shifted the odds of winning in his horse’s favor.
Then came along Grey Lag, a three-year-old horse that was entered by his trainer who now suddenly became the thoroughbred most likely to defeat both Prudery and Sporting Blood. Just before post time, Rothstein placed a $150,000 bet on his own horse. It was also just before post time Grey Lag was inexplicably pulled out of the race. This race became a subject of controversy as Rothstein’s horse was able to best Whitney’s filly. The win was his investment earned him almost half a million dollars in purse winnings and wagers. As many sensed something was awry, it was never proven that Sam Hildreth, the trainer who entered Grey Lag, was paid off to bow out of a race that Rothstein knew he’d win based on what he understood about Prudery’s condition.
Health, History, and Horses
Holding true to tradition, seventeen minutes before each post is set to start is a hand-rung bell. Today, racetracks tend to go with audio systems that use today’s technology to alert the jockeys and spectators that it’s time to get ready for the next race.
The track itself has been set up where the horses can walk through the crowd along a fenced path that leads them to the paddock for their races. Speaking as a fan of horses whose brother used to be a jockey once upon a time, it’s easy to become awestruck when in close proximity to these incredible animals.
Adding to the appeal of the racetrack is the Big Red Spring in its backyard picnic area. This opened in 1975 and was named after Man o’War and Secretariat. The white pavilion seen at this spring is the same that once upon a time sat over at Excelsior Spring.
When Saratoga Racetrack celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, the committee involved ensured this New York-based facility remained a significant race course in the United States of America. The fact this is also situated in a community known for its mineral hot springs, Saratoga Springs has rightfully earned its place as what really makes nations like America great. The landscape of health, history, and horses continues to demonstrate how important these three elements are that define us as members of the human race.
The raw spirit of horses, whether they’re on the racetrack or working on a ranch, is unparallel. Combining that with the refusal to sweep history under the rug is what keeps a human being healthy. It’s what keeps nations like America healthy. The moment we turn our back on history it’s like turning our back on ourselves. The beauty about horses, regardless if they’re Triple Crown icons or not is how these majestic creatures continually serve as a reminder that historical moments will continue whether we want them to or not.
Thankfully, Saratoga and its racetrack use both good and bad history to its advantage as it continues to move forward in the same spiritual manner the horse does. That’s why it’s regarded as a world-class facility and that’s why it sits as a crown jewel when it comes to representing true greatness.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
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