07/11/2013 3:15PM

Saratoga: In 150th year, track remains racing institution

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Saratoga circa 1890, arguably the most turbulent decade in the track's 150-year history.

“Mr. Morrissey deserves great credit for the excellent manner in which the whole detail of his attractive entertainment is managed.”

So wrote an approving reporter in the Aug. 4, 1863, edition of the Daily Saratogian, following the first day of the inaugural racing meet in the village of Saratoga Springs. Visitors to the little track on the north side of Union Avenue − not the south side, where the track currently lies − saw two races that day. The first comprised three one-mile heats and was won by Lizzie W. The second was won by Sympathy, and both horses came back to race again in the four-day meet. Seven of the eight winners were trained by Bill Bird, an 88 percent win rate that even Todd Pletcher couldn’t dream of seeing at Saratoga.

“Mr. Morrissey” was John Morrissey, the man credited with bringing Thoroughbred racing to Saratoga. He grew up in Troy, N.Y., not far from Saratoga, after emigrating from Ireland with his parents when he was a child. He was a bare-knuckle fighter, a gambler, a state senator, and an entrepreneur, and in the summer of 1863, he took out ads in the local paper, promoting his four-day meet on the same pages that featured updates from the Civil War front. As Morrissey touted the $1 admission fee, a headline two columns away read, “Lee Preparing for Battle! Rebel Forces Driven Out!”

Already a well-established summer resort, Saratoga apparently embraced Morrissey’s new diversion so warmly that in a wrap-up of the final day’s racing, the Daily Saratogian noted that plans for a new track were already in the works, though, it cautioned, “[We] do not know how likely the project is to be carried out.”

DRF WEEKEND: Crist: At Saratoga, an ever-evolving view from the press box

SARATOGA TOP 10: Jaipur-Ridan duel in 1962 Travers voted track's all-time No. 1 race

CELEBRATING THE SPA: Racing figures reminisce about their fondest memories

The skepticism would prove to be unwarranted. A year later, Morrissey’s vision, with the backing of New York businessmen William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and John Hunter, moved from the confined quarters of an old trotting track on the grounds of what is now the Oklahoma training facility to the approximately 100-acre lot across Union Avenue on which the track has been located since 1864.

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” Shakespeare wrote it of Cleopatra, but the words might aptly describe the old Spa, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Some parts of her may indeed have seen better days, and a close look will reveal the signs of age. But this summer, as in 143 summers past, thousands will flock to the old track, to the oldest sporting venue in the country, and forgive the track’s frailties in the face of a racing experience that continues to be unparalleled.

PHOTO: Saratoga today, with an expanded grandstand overlooking its turf course, which was introduced at the track in 1961. (Barbara D. Livingston)

Racing at Saratoga has not continued unabated since that first 1863 meet, at various times the victim of poor management, of politics, and of world war. There were years, perhaps even decades, when it seemed as though Saratoga were an expendable part of New York’s racing life, when it was sustained only by the success of Belmont and Aqueduct.

It faltered first in the era of Gottfried “Dutch Fred” Walbaum in the 1890’s. A racing and gambling man of unsavory reputation, he famously changed Saratoga’s post time from 11:30 to 2:30, the first instance of downtown businessmen being irritated by the late ending of the races. Saratoga also looked with opprobrium on Walbaum’s decision to create a betting ring for women at the race course. (In 1863, before the first meeting, the horses were paraded downtown before the grand hotels, “thus will the ladies have a chance to see the noble animals.”)

More significant, under Walbaum’s control, the track failed to open for the 1896 season, the result of a dispute with the Jockey Club over exclusive racing dates. Financial difficulties meant the Alabama was run only once in the last decade of the 19th century, and in 1888, 1889, and 1890, the Saratoga meeting was conducted without the Travers.

On the heels of Walbaum came William Collins Whitney, who provided a much-needed balm for Saratoga’s racing soul and an upgrade to its facilities. As a new century dawned, so, too, did an era of rejuvenation at the race course.

It was under Whitney’s guidance that the track expanded to include the Oklahoma training facility, and the iconic, slate-roofed grandstand was expanded and renovated. The early 20th century saw the construction of Stephen Sanford’s and August Belmont’s private stables on the backstretch, along with Saratoga’s prominent saddling shed.

PHOTO: William Collins Whitney (center) took over as owner of Saratoga in 1901 and was instrumental in bringing the track out of its financial difficulties. (Courtesy of the George S. Bolster Collection of the Saratoga Springs History Museum)

The year 1901 saw the return of the Travers Stakes and the first running of the Saratoga Special, but if the beginning of the new century offered hope and stability for the track, the end of that first decade saw its opposite.

Anti-gambling sentiment had been around for decades, but under Governor Charles Hughes, New York passed the Hart-Agnew Act in 1909, essentially prohibiting bookmaking. While betting continued apace with, apparently, a wink to the law, Hughes clamped down in 1910, asserting that track management and racing associations would be held liable for any infractions of the law. As a result, on Aug. 5, 1910, the Jockey Club officially announced that racing in New York State would end at the close of the Saratoga meet that summer.

Racing returned to New York State 2 1/2 years later, on May 30, 1913, after a New York State court ruled that while bookmaking could be outlawed, the track directors could not be held responsible for any wagering taking place on their premises. Saratoga reopened Aug. 2, and while the Saratoga Association initially fretted that the local community might not return to racing, the fears were short-lived: Opening day saw such a crowd − approximately 10,000 people − that the directors contemplated adding extra days to the end of the meet.

Saratoga missed three more years of racing during World War II, in the decade that saw four Triple Crown winners in Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, and Citation. Only one, Whirlaway, raced at Saratoga, but in winning the 1941 Travers, he did something no other horse has, adding the Midsummer Derby to his Triple Crown accomplishments.

Though uninterrupted since 1946, the Saratoga meeting has not been without upheaval. The 92-year run of the Saratoga Association, the organization whose first president was William Travers and which had overseen the track since 1864, came to an end when it, along with Jamaica, Belmont, and Aqueduct, was purchased by the Greater New York Association, which would in short order become the New York Racing Association.

The new management immediately made plans for grand renovations of Aqueduct, then Belmont. In the days before the interstate highway system, Saratoga’s relative remoteness made it less of a priority for the new organization, and for better or worse, the upstate track was left largely untouched. More than one racing historian has speculated that if Saratoga had been more accessible, it, too, would have been subject to the sort of renovation that resulted in the stark, modern 1960’s architecture that now stands at Belmont and Aqueduct.

By 1963, the year of Saratoga racing’s centennial, that remoteness came to an end when the Adirondack Northway reached Saratoga, the Union Avenue exit opening in early July. The centennial celebration made daily headlines in the local Saratogian, with no small number of editorials on the state of racing and the relationship between the track and the town.

“All are agreed,” went one editorial, “that better facilities for the patrons would result in increases in crowd and handle.”

“We must trade,” read another, “on [the] charm both in the racetrack and in the city. We want to preserve it at both places. But it must be preserved within the context of meeting modern needs. And it can’t be done, either place, without the financial wherewithal to keep up appearances and make improvements.”

Those improvements were already underway. The saddling shed constructed in the early 20th century redesign under William Collins Whitney was converted into office and parimutuel teller windows; the old field stand and betting ring at the top of the stretch were torn down to make room for an expanded grandstand.

PHOTO: Jaipur (left) edges Ridan after a thrilling racelong duel in the 1962 Travers, a race many consider the best in Saratoga history. Click here for top 10 races in Saratoga history. (Bob Coglianese)

The racing fans who came to the Spa in the 60’s to see a redesigned landscape were also treated to stellar performances on the track. Kelso, Horse of the Year from 1960-1964, raced at Saratoga in four of those years, winning the Whitney in 1963 and 1965. The 1962 Travers between Jaipur and Ridan is among the most thrilling races ever contested at Saratoga, and five years later, Damascus won the 1967 Travers by 22 lengths.

The decade came to a close with Arts and Letters winning the 100th Travers. He was voted that year’s 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year, a fitting way to end a decade in which every Horse of the Year raced, and won, at Saratoga.

In the decades since, Saratoga has been largely ascendant. The meeting ran for 24 days from 1946 to 1990, with the exception of the 1982 season, which comprised 27 straight days of racing without a dark day. Unsurprisingly, that experiment has not been repeated.

The year 1991 saw six days added to the meet, and days have been added incrementally since then, reaching the current 40-day format in 2010. Where most tracks are scaling back and racing less, Saratoga can maintain a six-day racing schedule, often with 10 races a day, though some would argue that quality of racing has been sacrificed for quantity.

Inarguable is the robustness of Saratoga’s appeal. All-sources handle for August 2012 was $384,089,360, according to numbers provided by NYRA, approximately 35 percent of the Equibase-reported handle on U.S. races. Attendance in 2012 was up 3.4 percent over 2011, which saw one fewer racing day, and average daily attendance last year was 22,526.

The finest horses, jockeys, and trainers continue to flock to Saratoga in the summer. Stall requests this summer exceeded stall space by a nearly 2-1 margin, with 120 trainers requesting space for 3,000 horses, according to P.J. Campo, NYRA’s vice president and director of racing. The stall capacity at Saratoga, including the Oklahoma, is 1,850. Trainers based outside of the state who are expected at Saratoga this summer include Tom Amoss and Charles LoPresti, along with recent New York arrival John Shirreffs. Spa regulars D. Wayne Lukas, Eddie Kenneally, Ian Wilkes, Dale Romans, and Graham Motion will also be based at Saratoga.

PHOTO: Two canoes represent the dead-heat winners of the 2012 Travers, Alpha and Golden Ticket. (Barbara D. Livingston)

On the equine side, the winners of all three Triple Crown races − Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice − will train at Saratoga this summer as they work toward an expected start in the Travers Stakes.

Back in 1863, hopes were high for the little meet in the little town upstate. In a brief preview, the New York Times predicted the initial racing meet would be “one of the greatest events which has taken place at Saratoga in some years.” One hundred years later, the same paper noted that Morrissey’s program had been “experimental . . . held primarily to see if it would catch on with the public.”

Catch on it did, this unlikely vision of a man who rose from rough and sketchy beginnings to achieve the highest levels of respectability. When Morrissey died at the Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga in 1878, hundreds turned out to bid him farewell and honor the legacy he left their town. Before such a phrase was coined, Morrissey lived, or perhaps invented, the American dream. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that he created an American sporting institution.