John Morrissey, father of local racing, subject of exhibit
SARATOGA SPRINGS Nobody really knows if John Morrissey was any good at picking the horses.
People do know the Irish businessman had other skills -- and one of them was picking the place horses like to run.
Saratoga Race Course is celebrating the 150th anniversary of racing in the city this year, and Morrissey is being remembered at the track as the man who organized the first, brief meet in 1863.
The life of Morrissey is also being celebrated at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany. "Irish and Horse Racing: John Morrissey" will run through August at the museum at 370 Broadway.
"We felt it was important to highlight the life of an Irish immigrant as part of the whole history of Saratoga and Saratoga Race Course," said Ed Collins of Niskayuna, president of the museum's board of trustees.
According to museum research materials, Morrissey was born in 1831 in Templemore, County Tipperary. By 1833, young John and his family had emigrated to Troy. As a young man, John Morrissey was leading a street gang in Troy, where disputes were settled with bare knuckles.
Morrissey took up professional boxing and was looking for fights in New York City by 1849. He also worked as an enforcer for Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that helped control New York City.
Morrissey moved to California for a short time but was soon back in New York City. He began his own gambling house and kept lining up fights. He became national bareknuckles champion in 1853 after winning a 37-round fight against Yankee Sullivan.
A wealthy Morrissey moved north in 1861.
"He made his way to Saratoga," Collins said. "He opened up a gambling establishment and realized at one point there was very little to do during the day when the gambling house was closed. So he had the idea of a horse race. He put together a horse race, and it was widely successful. Several more followed."
Collins said Morrissey knew other wealthy men and got them involved with the new endeavor.
"The Irish in the early half of the 19th century were not well received," Collins said. "In many instances, they were poor, his family was poor. Here's a man who became very successful as an Irishman and eventually became accepted into society -- perhaps not to the extent that well-known families were. This is why, when his consortium of backers started Saratoga, he sort of kept in the background. He wanted the well-known individuals to take the lead on that. He stayed in the background and was pretty much the manager of the race course."
People who visit the exhibit will see photos of Morrissey, check out examples of clothing worn during the 1860s and read about the man's life.
"They're going to learn the personal history of John Morrissey and the history of Saratoga Race Course in the 19th century," Collins said.
During the mid-1800s, people would leave metropolitan areas such as New York City and Boston for breaks in Saratoga Springs.
"People came to Saratoga for their health, the waters and the spas," Collins said. "A lot of people came from urban areas like Albany and Troy. Let's not forget Troy was a very industrial city at the time. They wanted to get away, and Saratoga was a respite for that. There was money in town at the time and a service industry to support that money, a lot of laborers."
Morrissey, who served as both a U.S. representative and senator after founding the Saratoga meet, passed away at the Adelphi Hotel on May 1, 1878. He was 47.
"When he died, there was a huge funeral in Troy for him," Collins said.
The $100,000 John Morrissey Purse is run annually at Saratoga in his honor.
The Irish American Heritage Museum is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and free for children 14 and younger.