The racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York, is named, the Saratoga Race Course. But to get to the history of the track, we first travel back a few centuries, for the history of Saratoga goes back to the 14th Century, and the Aboriginal Americans who lived and visited here. Much of the appeal of this special place had to do with the healing waters-many different natural waters, some effervescent, which were credited with curing myriad ailments.
The village-then town-grew and evolved into the City of Saratoga Springs-and always the waters were the center of attraction. By the mid-1800s, the city was the summer home of many wealthy Americans and internationals, and a hotbed of both tourism and gambling. The American War Between the States (the Civil War) was little distraction to those who sought refuge from the heat of cities like New York and Boston-the city rocked on, and prospered. In fact, one month to the day after the heartbreaking Battle of Gettysburg, the Saratoga Race Course was born, officially.
You see, on August 3, 1863, two men of great wealth and horse owners, decided to create a race track that would be worthy of their Thoroughbreds. John Hunter and William R. Travers created a track on the north side of Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, which now is the site of the Oklahoma Training Track.
No doubt the two horsemen had a great vision, for they willed into being the Saratoga Race Course--not only the oldest racetrack in the United States, but by many accounts, the oldest sporting venue of any kind in this country, as well. (In 1864 the Saratoga Racing Association named a stakes race for Travers-and that race became the oldest major Thoroughbred race in America. The Travers now is called the Midsummer Derby: the greatest three-year-old horses trek to the Spa City to compete for the $1 million purse.)
In 1864, the track moved across Union Avenue, to its present location. The original meet in 1863 was four days long. (The length of the meet has grown with time, to the current 40 days/six-week season.) The world's most accomplished Thoroughbreds have raced on the hallowed ground of Saratoga Race Course, for indeed, Saratoga is the gold standard. Only the best in their respective divisions dare to come and test their talent at the Spa. Names such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin and the mighty Man O'War-all spent time in residence in the primeval backstretch, and racing on the track.
In fact, it was the Sanford Stakes in 1913 that added the word, "upset" to the English lexicon, meaning an unexpected defeat of an opponent that's considered to be more formidable. Man O'War went into the race with 21 wins-and lost to a horse named Upset. Ironically, Upset's name now is invoked every time there's a surprise victory-whether that's in horse racing or another sport-even business and politics.
When another Triple Crown victor, Gallant Fox, was defeated by a horse with 100-1 odds, Saratoga gained the ominous nickname “The Graveyard of Champions.”
It's impossible to measure the contributions that the Saratoga Race Course-and the annual event that attracts thousands of race fans to the city-have made to American and world culture. The name, "Saratoga" is known around the planet, for the name evokes so many images: the elegance, majesty and traditions of the world's oldest sport, regally-bred horses (and owners)-the unspeakable wealth of royals, captains of industry and rock stars who participate as owners, breeders and fans.
Filmmakers and other media have sought out Saratoga and the race course as both the main focus or as a set. Filming in Saratoga, and at Saratoga Race Course, assures original beauty that no set designer could reproduce. (i.e., films such as "Seabiscuit," "Saratoga," "The Horse Whisperer," "The Way We Were," "Billy Bathgate," "Ghost Story" and "My Old Man," to name a few.) A scene in Ian Fleming's James Bond novel, "Diamonds are Forever," features a scene at the Saratoga Race Course. Authors, as well, long have been enamored with the haunting, untouchable beauty of the place: Dick Francis, Bernie Orenstein, Edna Ferber and Stephen Dobyns are among a few of the literati who've mentioned the place or outright set their books at the track and town.
Saratoga continues to inspire, both here and abroad: in February, 2012, the Concord Watch company re-issued its Concord Saratoga-a high-end watch, its only peers being those in the Stratosphere, such as Rolex. At the watch's debut in Doha, Qatar, Gulf News (the largest English-language newspaper in the Middle East) reported that, "Since its launch in 1986, the Concord Saratoga has consistently reflected the spirit of its namesake, a distinguished Thoroughbred race track located in Saratoga Springs, New York. Opened in 1863, Saratoga is the oldest organised sporting venue of any kind in the United States."
Truly, in the nearly 150 years since Mr. Hunter and Mr. Travers first envisioned a beautiful place to race their steeds against other accomplished horses, the track has morphed, but never compromised its sense of history and original purpose.
It is the only race track in the country at which the horses walk right through the crowd, on a white-fenced path, to get to the paddock for their races. Such a thrill, to get to stand so close to actual greatness-to see the sun glimmering off the horses' beautifully-maintained coats. To experience their eyes, their musculature-that close, and personal. The Big Red Spring in the backyard (picnic area) has delighted patrons of the track since the 1800s. The Travers Canoe, floating serenely on the infield pond, reminds fans of the previous year's winner. The hand-rung bell, which sounds exactly 17 minutes before each post, reminds the horses and riders that it's time to go. Another gentle reminder of the days before jumbotrons and audio systems, when the metal note of a bell rang out through the pristine, wooded race course.
In 2013, the Saratoga150 Committee planned several months of events to delight virtually every heart. The reason for the party is that quite simply, one hot August day in 1863, two gentle horsemen decided that it was time to expand Saratoga's appeal, and the way to do that was to create a permanent, significant race track in America. Their legacy lives on in every horse, winner's circle picture, race fan and smile-at the oldest and most beautiful race track in the United States.
SEPTEMBER 19, 1777, AND OCTOBER 7, 1777
The word Saratoga is shorthand for two battles that gave the coup de grace to the 1777 British invasion from Canada during the American Revolutionary War. After capturing Fort Ticonderoga with almost laughable ease, the British army, led by overconfident General John Burgoyne, crawled south at a tortoise pace, giving the rattled Americans time to regroup under Horatio Gates. To support him, GeneralGeorge Washington sent Benedict Arnold, his best infantry commander; Colonel Daniel Morgan and his crack regiment of Virginia riflemen; and two brigades of Continentals from the Hudson Highlands. They raised Gates’s strength to about sixty-five hundred men. Equally important was Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish engineer, who built excellent field fortifications on Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River.
The Canfield Casino is one Saratoga Springs’ most treasured landmarks. The building was built as a gambling casino by John Morrissey. John Morrissey was born in 1831 and grew up in Troy, New York. He ended up in New York City and became part of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall network. He learned about fighting, politics and high society while in New York. In 1852 at age 21 he traveled to California for the gold rush. There he put his fighting skills to use as a professional boxer and in eventually became heavyweight champion.
Morrissey first came to Saratoga Springs in 1861 and operated a small gaming house on Matilda Street (Woodlawn Avenue). While he was only 30 years old, he was already an accomplished athlete and politicatian representing New York in Congress. He was also a founding member of the Saratoga Race Course. He knew that there was more money to be made and starting in 1867 he invested $190,000.00 to build an elegant casino. Opening in 1870, his Saratoga Club House was a draw for wealthy and prominent visitor’s world wide. Morrissry did not use the name Casino. Morrissey operated the Clubhouse during the summers until his untimely death in 1878 at the age of 47.
Owner ship passed to Albert Spencer and Charles Reed. In 1883 Richard Canfield took a partnership in the Saratoga Clubhouse and bought it outright the following year for $250,000. Canfield invested an estimated $800,000 in enhancing the building and the grounds of Congress Park to bring them up to the standards of the top European establishments. In 1902-3 he added a sumptuous dining room to the back of the Clubhouse fitting it with stained glass windows and an early form of air conditioning. He ordered marble statuary for the Italian gardens in the northeast corner of Congress Park. The elegant atmosphere made the cream of society feel welcome to bet their money on the Clubhouses’s many games of chance. Canfield was recognized as the King of the Gamblers; Saratoga Springs was seen as the American Monte Carlo.
However, anti-gambling sentiments increased in the first decade of the 20th Century. Canfield was forced to close his New York City casino, paying a stiff fine. In Saratoga Springs, he kept the Clubhouse going until 1907. He sold the building to the village for less than he had paid for it in 1911.
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