Book details city’s horse racing history over 150 years
SARATOGA SPRINGS Accuracy makes for long titles.
That’s what historian Allan Carter and thoroughbred writer Mike Kane discovered when they struggled to name their book about the 150 years since the first thoroughbred racing meet was held in Saratoga Springs on an old trotting track off Union Avenue.
Finding something short and snappy that was also technically correct was difficult. They couldn’t reference the 150th anniversary of Saratoga Race Course, because the current track was built the next year, in 1864. And they couldn’t say this year is the 150th year of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga, because the track was closed for six of those summers.
But how do you explain that on a book cover?
“The title would be longer than the book,” Carter joked.
Saratoga 150 organizer Ed Lewi paid the same attention to detail when he drafted written materials for the summerlong slate of events this year that celebrates the birth of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs 150 years ago.
“We didn’t want to get involved in anything that was not right,” Lewi said. The organizing committee had Carter, the historian for the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, research the history so the Saratoga 150 committee could decide when to celebrate.
Carter’s confirmation that the first meet in Saratoga Springs was held for four days starting Aug. 3, 1863, led the committee to plan the celebration for this year, with well over a dozen featured events starting this month and stretching through the middle of September.
While it’s fair to celebrate this year as 150 years since thoroughbred racing started, the historical stickler in Carter would have wanted a two-year celebration — this year and next year — or put off the festivities until the 150th anniversary of Saratoga Race Course, an event that wouldn’t require so much explanation.
“I would forget about the 1863 and go with the 1864 next year,” Carter said.
But then the celebration would ignore the first year of racing, he acknowledged, so there has to be some compromise.
Carter and Kane’s book title required a compromise too, they ultimately decided, and dubbed it “150 Years of Racing in Saratoga.”
“We didn’t want to mislead people,” Kane said. But “even on off years there were racing-related stories.”
The book is slated to come out this summer, just in time for the bulk of the Saratoga 150 events.
Many books have been written about the history of Saratoga racing.
Ed Hotaling’s “They’re Off!” details the first racing meet, which champion bare-knuckle boxer John Morrissey founded.
The track where the first meet was held, in what is now called Horse Haven on the north side of Union Avenue, was far from ideal. There were no seats, Hotaling wrote, the track was less than a mile and visibility was poor because of trees and buildings.
Nevertheless, 15,000 people attended, and interest in that first meet was so high that Morrissey and several partners built a 1-mile track and the first grandstand across the street on the south side of Union Avenue. It opened in the summer of 1864.
By the mid-1800s, Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa were already well-known resort towns that drew tourists both for the mineral springs and for the gambling and drinking establishments and the brothels.
So Morrissey started thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs to give gamblers something to do before nighttime betting, Carter said.
The sport was at times held in low esteem.
The racing meet first was canceled in 1896, during Gottfried Walbaum’s tenure running the track, when the quality of racing declined and major stakes races disappeared.
There were no meets in 1911 and 1912 because gambling was prohibited statewide.
And during World War II, travel restrictions forced the cancellation of the meet for three years in a row, 1943 through 1945.
However, the racing association at Saratoga made arrangements with the organization that ran Belmont Park to run the Saratoga meet at Belmont for downstate residents to attend.
All the stops and starts in Saratoga racing make it difficult to sum up the history with a single number, and promotional materials for the centennial of racing in 1963 contain the same confusions, Carter said.
New York Racing Association officials face a similar challenge each year when the storied Travers Stakes rolls around in late August.
The first Travers took place in 1864, but racing officials will describe this year’s race as the 144th running of the Travers Stakes rather than the 149th anniversary of the first Travers.