Horse racing can be dated as far back as Ancient Greece. Often referred to as The Sport of Kings, horse racing has long been a fascination of aristocrats and high society alike. Today, as one of the few legalized forms of public gambling throughout the world, horse racing ranks among the highest attended spectator sporting events in America—big hats and all.
Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is well known for its natural, mineral springs. More important, Saratoga is home to the oldest and one of the most beloved racetracks in the United States. The Saratoga Race Course, which was established in 1864, was the ingenuity of Irish Immigrant, John Morrissey. With the financial backing of Leonard Jerome and William Hunter, 125 acres of land were acquired across the street from the old trotting track on Union Avenue, previously known as Horse Haven, where the Saratoga Race Course was born.
Often regarded as The Spa and Graveyard of Champions, due to its proximity to Saratoga’s mineral springs and baths, Saratoga Race Course first opened its gates on August 2, 1864 with the infamous Travers Stakes. Named for William Travers, the president of the Old Saratoga Racing Association at the time, Travers is still considered Saratoga’s signature race to date.
The late 1800s were incredibly trying on the Saratoga Race Course. Due to speculation that Saratoga was not adhering to the same gambling standards as the New York City tracks, The Spa was shut down for the first time in 1896, citing financial reasons. In the early 1900s an anti-gambling movement threatened Saratoga’s livelihood. The Hart-Agnew Act law passed in 1908 shut down every racetrack in New York State. The economic ramifications of this law hit Saratoga Springs hard, as many local businesses and hotels suffered from the lack of tourism.
The Graveyard of Champions is well known for testing even the best of thoroughbreds. One of the most memorable races at Saratoga occurred when English-bred Man o’ War lost his only career race to a horse ironically named Upset, during 1913—now the word is frequently used whenever a surprise victory occurs in any sporting event. Over the years, spectators at Saratoga have witnessed the likes of horse racing Hall of Famers Luke Blackburn, Hindoo, Hanover, Kingston, Emperor of Norfolk, and Miss Woodford, who was the first horse bred and raced in the U.S. to earn over $100,000.
The Great Depression was not the only thing to shock the country in the 1930s. On August 16, 1930, the Gallant Fox, America’s second Triple Crown winner, was defeated by underdog Jim Dandy, whose odds were 100-1. This race solidified Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Champions. Future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in attendance along with approximately 50,000 spectators for this event.
Horse racing at Saratoga was postponed from 1943-1945 due to World War II. However, the 1950s brought excitement back to Saratoga, as The Spa witnessed two of the greatest thoroughbreds in the history of horse racing, Tom Fool and Native Dancer. Tom Fool, Horse of the Year in 1953, was the second horse to win New York’s Handicap Triple: the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn. While Native Dancer, nicknamed the Grey Ghost, was only beaten once in his 22 career starts.
In 1955, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) was established. NYRA purchased New York State’s largest racetracks—the Aqueduct, Jamaica, Belmont Park, and Saratoga—for $20 million. With significant improvements made by NYRA, as well as the opening of the Adirondack Northway, the Saratoga Race Course saw great prosperity during the 1970s and 1980s.
Fourstardave, wildly regarded as The Sultan of Saratoga, made his debut in 1987. As a Saratoga fan favorite, Fourstardave won, at minimum, one race every year at Saratoga Race Course between 1987 and 1994. Also during the 1990s, the racing season was extended from four weeks to the five. It wasn’t until 2009 that NYRA extended Saratoga’s racing season to six weeks, or the 40-day season we know today.
For nearly 150 years, Saratoga has witnessed the world’s most accomplished thoroughbreds, from Secretariat to Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Rachel Alexandra, and Curlin, among others. Sports Illustrated has honored Saratoga as one of the “Top 10 Sporting Venues In the World.” And Saratoga is the only racetrack in the country that permits fans to dote on their favorite thoroughbreds, by allowing horses to walk directly through excited crowds to and from their races.
For these reasons, the City of Saratoga Springs will celebrate 150 years of thoroughbred racing in 2013. The celebration referred to as Saratoga 150, will include several months of music, festivals, food and fun. The event begins on May 26, 2013. So mark your calendar now, and look for ways to get involved as the Saratoga Race Course celebrates 150 years of historic racing, culture, and entertainment.