08/04/2013 8:46PM

John Sparkman: Saratoga a repository of memories on track and in sales ring

The legendary Man o' War was sold as a yearling in Saratoga - not by Fasig-Tipton but by a rival company

The history of the American Thoroughbred is inextricably intertwined with the history of the town of Saratoga Springs, New York. Almost from the time John Morrissey, William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and John Hunter built the first iteration of the Saratoga racetrack in 1863, Saratoga has attracted the highest quality horses, owners, trainers, and riders in America.

Without doubt the first private horse sale at Saratoga occurred not long after the track itself opened, but public auctions at or near the racetrack did not become a permanent fixture until after the resumption of racing in New York in 1913 following the 2 1/2-year-hiatus caused by anti-gambling crusaders. Fasig-Tipton Co. built the first permanent structure to host horse sales in 1917, and the following year their then rival Powers-Hunter Co. sold a big, red chestnut colt under the elms in the Saratoga paddock for $5,000. Subsequently named Man o’ War, he won three races at the Spa the following year, including the Hopeful Stakes, but suffered his only defeat in the Sanford Stakes.

It did not take long for Fasig-Tipton to establish itself as the premier horse auction firm in the country and Saratoga as the country’s most important yearling auction in the period between the two World Wars. Saratoga was the venue and Fasig-Tipton the seller of America’s top-priced yearling for 26 consecutive years from 1917 through 1942, a sequence broken only by the transfer of Saratoga’s sale to Keeneland’s paddock in 1943, forced by Word War II fuel rationing and travel restrictions.

The very first sale topper at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale was the good stakes winner Huron, by Sweeper, purchased by Joseph E. Widener for $4,000, the co-highest price that year. As American racing – and the American economy – began to thrive during and after World War I, prices rose quickly, and by 1923, Flying Ebony, by The Finn, topped the sale at $21,000. Two years later, Flying Ebony became the first of only three top-priced American yearlings of their year to win the Kentucky Derby.

In 1925 a filly from the third crop of Man o’ War smashed the American record for a yearling at auction, selling for $50,500 to James Cox Brady’s Hamilton Farms. Named War Feathers, she won only one of seven starts, but eventually proved worth far more than her purchase price to the Brady family. War Feathers produced four stakes winners, including champion 3-year-old filly and handicap mare War Plumage, by On Watch, and her great-granddaughter Secret Meeting, by Alibhai, stands at the head of a female family that includes the Bradys’ 1965 Epsom Oaks winner, Long Look, by Ribot. War Feathers is also the eighth dam of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

In 1927 William R. Coe broke the world-record price for a yearling, paying $70,000 for Hustle On, a colt by the great English sire Hurry On, and the following year C.V.B. Cushman upped the ante to $75,000 for a Whisk Broom II colt he named New Broom. Neither horse ever won a race, and within a few years, the Great Depression forced prices down at Saratoga, just like everywhere else.

The hastily arranged wartime sale in Keeneland’s paddock in 1943 provided an immediate boon for Fasig-Tipton but produced a long-term challenge for both the company and for Saratoga. William R. Helis paid $66,000, highest price since 1928, for the Blenheim II colt Pericles, but the success of the sale, combined with continued fuel rationing, inspired Kentucky breeders to form a cooperative to sell their best yearlings annually at Keeneland instead of incurring the risk and expense of shipping them by rail from the Bluegrass to upstate New York.

For the next 25 years or so, Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland (which eventually replaced the Breeders’ Sales cooperative in running the Keeneland sales) engaged in a pitched battle, with Keeneland coming out on top most years by selling the most expensive horses. Saratoga provided the year’s most expensive yearling in 1948, 1950, and in 1956, when Rise ’N Shine, by Hyperion, set an American record of $87,000, and in 1962 Paul Mellon spent $83,000, an American record for a filly, for Golden Gorse, by Swaps.

The best Saratoga sale topper during the post-war era, though, was Globemaster, by Heliopolis, the joint highest-priced yearling of his year in 1959. Globemaster won the Wood Memorial, finished second in both the Preakness and Belmont, and earned $355,423.

In 1971, Pass, by Buckpasser, was the year’s highest-priced yearling at $235,000, but from 1972 through 2008 – 37 consecutive years – Keeneland provided America’s highest-priced yearling, until 2009, when John Ferguson paid $2.8-million at Saratoga for a Storm Cat colt subsequently named On a Storm.

Ferguson’s purchase of that colt for his patron Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, followed the spring 2008 purchase of Fasig-Tipton by Dubai-based Synergy Investments. Synergy’s takeover has changed the Thoroughbred auction landscape in America in several ways, most of them favoring Saratoga.

While Sheikh Mohammed had not appeared at the Saratoga sale in person for more than 20 years, in recent years the Spa has become an annual event for the world’s largest Thoroughbred owner – and now he rarely makes it to Keeneland’s September sale a few weeks later. That fact has made Kentucky breeders more willing to send some of their best yearlings north to Saratoga in August – especially those sired by Darley stallions – instead of keeping all of the very best ones closer to home as they did for decades.

Synergy has also invested serious money in upgrading the Fasig-Tipton facilities both in Saratoga Springs and at its Kentucky base at Newtown Paddocks on the north side of Lexington. The elegant structures and high-end furnishings that now greet patrons at Fasig-Tipton’s Humphrey S. Finney pavilion on East Avenue in Saratoga Springs, just a block from the racetrack, equal or surpass those of any Thoroughbred sales facility in the world.

Much has changed since the author’s first visit to Saratoga in 1974, but the Spa has managed to maintain its place as the storehouse of American racing’s historical memories. One can still walk down the street to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Tall elm trees still shade the show rings where at any moment one may be enthralled by the first sight of an Unbridled’s Song or a Saudi Poetry, both graduates of the Saratoga sale.

The Victorian facade of the Rip Van Dam Hotel still graces Saratoga’s Broadway, just across from the Canfield Casino, a reminder of why it all started. John Morrissey’s motivation for building a racetrack in Saratoga Springs was to attract more wealthy patrons for his primary business, the casino.

Much has changed in the world since 1863, but some things never change. Saratoga is the place we build new racing memories.