The late sports columnist Red Smith once offered directions to Saratoga, his favourite racetrack and wrote: “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.”
Truer words were never spoken, and while the Saratoga Race track of today is replete with all the mod cons of a technical world, it is the flavor, background and history of this grande dame of racing that makes Saratoga a truly unique corner of the world, tastefully upscale and special in every way. Saratoga in summer is a way of life, a style with panache etched in town with grace and flair that extends to the race track on Union Avenue where greats like Man O’War, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Affirmed and countless others have graced the turf.
This year Saratoga Race Course celebrated its 150th birthday with history that reaches back into the bloody days of the American Civil War and beyond. The healing mineral waters at Saratoga Springs were well known by the 14th century Aboriginal Americans and by the mid 1800s people arrived in droves to this small town, many building lavish summer homes there called “cottages” to escape the searing summer heat of Boston and New York City. The Civil War was also raging and one month after the Battle of Gettysburg, on August 3, 1863, visionary John Morrissey along with wealthy horse owners John Hunter, Leonard Jerome and William J. Travers decided to create a track on the north side of Union Avenue. Besides a venue where they could showcase their racehorses, the races gave gentlemen visitors something to do when bored with the endless rounds of cotillions, teas, water tastings and social events. Saratoga race course was born and besides being the oldest racetrack in the USA, it can also claim to be the oldest sporting venue of any kind in America.
Post race fun was created once again thanks to John Morrissey, an Irish-born Tammany Hall enforcer-turned-prizefighter-turned politician who was more than a little rough around the edges. Morrissey’s opulent Victorian gambling club house opened in 1870 and the millionaires would drift over there to gamble away their fortunes after the last race. No ladies or locals were allowed to enter and there are stories of gamblers wagering $500,000 in one day!
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
In 1864 the track was moved to Union Avenue and it has since remained there welcoming average joe-public along with famous owners, robber barons, blue bloods, gamblers, film and rock stars, kingpins, movers and shakers of politics and industry along with notables from the past included Lillian Russell, Lily Langtry, Diamond Jim Brady, Bet-A-Million Gates, Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, and the Whitneys, Rothschilds and Vanderbilts. They came and still come to drink, and dine in style in the grandstand, or enjoy the shaded picnic area, and white fenced path where the horses walk right by the fans to get to the track, the only track in America to do this. Anybody who was anybody went to Saratoga to see and be seen adding elegance and style to its grand Victorian architecture, upscale accommodations, stores, spas and tree lined main street…it was the place to be in high summer season. It was the August place to be!
Over the years the buildings and grandstand have changed many times to reflect the needs of growing patrons, and the original racing card that was just four days long in 1863 has grown to an annual summer meet ranging from mid-July to the end of September. Although the track did close in 1911-1912 due to gambling reforms, and again for two years from 1943 to 1945 because of World War II, attendance grows each year. On the day of the Travers Stakes, the million dollar race for three year olds, now the Midsummer Derby and the oldest major horse race in America, the population of Saratoga Springs blossoms to double the town’s usual numbers.
Sadly with prohibition, the Great Depression and the closure during WW II, Saratoga’s fortunes were dwindling and the town was attracting a far less “tony” race fan. A much needed boost was needed and in the sixties, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center opened and the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet called Saratoga their summer home bringing with them renovation, restoration, a new generation of racing fan and a complete and much welcomed rebirth offering dance, pop, rock, country, jazz and orchestra music.
The “Graveyard of Champions”
Saratoga has not always been kind to her four legged stars and the famous Man O’War was beaten here in the 1919 Sanford to a horse named Upset, his only defeat in 21 starts; Gallant Fox was beaten by a 100-1 longshot named Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers Stakes giving Saratoga the moniker “Graveyard of Champions”, and Secretariat lost to Onion after winning The Triple Crown in 1973 to a throng of devastated fans.
There are four horses that are recorded as being buried at Saratoga: Mourjane, an Irish-bred turf runner; A Phenomenon, a terrific sprinter, Go for Wand who broke down in the 1990 Breeder’s Cup, and Fourstardave who won 21 out of 100 starts and won at least one race every year at the track for eight years in a row making him, “the Sultan of Saratoga” and a fan favorite. He suffered a heart attack at Belmont Park in 2002 in a post parade for New York breds and was buried at Saratoga in Claire Court.
Saratoga race track, recently the star of a documentary titled Saratoga: America’s Grandest Race Course, has also been featured in books, songs and movies. The track is in an early scene in Ian Fleming’s James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever; Dick Francis has also used Saratoga in his books; Carly Simon mentions the track in her 1972 hit, You’re So Vain, and movies such as Seabiscuit,” “Saratoga,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “The Way We Were,” “Billy Bathgate,” “Ghost Story” and “My Old Man,” used the beautiful track setting and background, the producers knowing that no movie back lot could ever duplicate the grandeur of this track.
Did You Know?
• There are three separate tracks at Saratoga: the main dirt track of 11/8-mile (9 furlongs), a second 1 mile (8 furlong) turf track known as the Mellon Turf Course in honor of the Mellon family, a third inner turf track of 7 furlongs.
• Steeplechase races may also take place on either of the turf courses, depending on the distance of the race.
• Exactly 17 minutes prior to scheduled post time, a bell is hand rung to call the jockeys to the paddock.
• There is a mineral spring called the Big Red Spring in the picnic grounds where fans can sip the waters that made Saratoga famous.
• The potato chip was first invented in Saratoga in 1853 when financier Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his potato dish back to the kitchen of Moon’s Lake House restaurant. Chef George Crum sliced a potato super thin, fried it, added extra salt and the rest is history. The potato chip was actually called a Saratoga chip until the mid 29th century.
• A real canoe has been in the infield pond since 1926 but starting in 1961, the canoe has been painted in Travers Cup owners colours from the previous year.