Every year, there is much anticipation of the famed meet at Saratoga Race Course; 6 weeks of pure heaven, ecstasy, bliss, whatever description you prefer. Thousands upon thousands of avid and amateur racing fans, and those somewhere in between, plan their getaway to the renowned and loved town of Saratoga Springs, New York for “Health, History, Horses.” But, many other popular racetracks around the country are up and “running,” so why all of the touting? A quick history lesson is needed to understand why Saratoga Springs and its race course is the “Summer Place To Be.”
Saratoga Springs – originally known simply as “Saratoga” – is a quaint town in the heart of the Capital Region of New York. The village of Saratoga was inhabited by Native Americans who were attracted to the region for its mineral springs, as they believed the springs were resources of healing. As time progressed and more people became attracted to the area due in part to a railroad system, the town became known as the city of Saratoga Springs. The wealthy began to populate the area during the summer months, and it soon became a city of tourism and “entertainment” (gambling, that is).
Much credit must be given to John Morrissey, a boxer, casino owner, and congressman who played a pivotal role in the success of Saratoga Springs. Morrissey organized a meet where thousands of people came to Saratoga Springs to watch Thoroughbreds race each other during a time of turmoil, as the Civil War was transpiring. Those few days were so successful that that Morrissey decided to take a gamble (pun intended). Remember that guy, William R. Travers? Yeah, the guy who the prestigious Travers Stakes, (also known as the Midsummer Derby – the oldest race still run today), is named after. Well, Morrissey was chummy with Travers and a few others, and he gave them the instruction to form what was then known as the Saratoga Racing Association. Morrissey, being the “businessman” he was, decided to buy the vast area of land which is now known as Saratoga Race Course. The track opened its gates on August 3rd, 1863 and is one of the first racetracks ever opened that is still thriving today.
Fun fact: A race was inaugurated in 2004 in John Morrissey’s name for strictly New York-bred horses, the John Morrissey (NYB).
The city of Saratoga Springs is known to attract a wealthy crowd, who carry themselves with grandeur. The same can be said for the several first-rate thoroughbreds that have graced their hooves upon the race course, such as Man o’ War, Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew, to name a few. It is the track every owner, trainer and breeder dreams of their horse, with a bit of luck, conquering. Why, you ask? Well, some of the all-time greats have been defeated by unlikely challengers on the track and therefore, Saratoga Race Course earned the nickname, “The Graveyard of Champions.” The nickname goes back to the year 1930 when Gallant Fox, the winner of that year’s prestigious Triple Crown, was defeated by a horse named Jim Dandy (yes, like the stakes race; this is where the name for it came from), who went off at odds of 100-1! The appeal of winning a race at Saratoga has upheld its tenure for many years. It separates the mediocre from the best, and its winner circle is the place every horseman dreams about standing in.
Although one of the shorter meets of the year, which is partly why it’s so special and treasured, Saratoga Race Course carries such a presence about it that makes it unlike any other sports venue and event in the world. Even the word “Saratoga” creates a buzz worldwide, and opening day at the track is considered by many horse racing fans as “Christmas in July.” It is known for its vibrant red and white colors, the Big Red Spring near the paddock in the picnic area (which is a must-see and drink), yummy food, smiling faces, bettors, owners, and trainers alike yelling for their horse to cross the finish line first, numerous graded stakes races where the top horses in the world compete for chance to shine in the winner’s circle, and one of the more unique features of the track; the white-fenced horse path that is located right in the middle of the crowd where the illustrious thoroughbreds can be viewed making their way to the paddock (which was just redone in rubber bricks in time for this year’s meet).
It is something every person should experience at least once in their lifetime.
The race course plays an integral role in the success of Saratoga Springs. However, the city itself possesses such charm and inimitability that it mustn’t be overlooked. When the races have concluded for the day and on “dark days” (when the races aren’t running, specifically on Tuesdays during the meet), there is so much to witness and experience in downtown Saratoga Springs. There is shopping, food and drink, spas, arts, nightlife, you name it! Not only is there an immeasurable amount of activities for all ages, the architecture and style of the town is so picturesque and aesthetically-pleasing that you will observe people simply meandering down the sidewalks of Broadway, enamored at the sights.
Saratoga Springs should be on every person’s bucket list as a place to visit, horse racing fan or not, as it has such a rich history (literally) and there is really something for everyone. The town and the track deserve every bit of build-up that people postulate. The town holds true to its slogan “Health, History, Horses,” and hopefully you now see why Saratoga Race Course is really is the “Summer Place To Be.”
A special Thank You to Gail M. Stein and Frozen Moments In and Around Saratoga for the images for this column.