Saratoga Springs has been intertwined with the rich traditions of thoroughbred racing since 1864. Now the country’s oldest active sporting venue, Saratoga Race Course began with an idea from a bare-knuckle boxing champion and has been a summer tradition for 160 years.
John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, conceptualized the first official thoroughbred race meeting at Saratoga. An Irish immigrant, Morrissey graduated from street brawling to reign as the American bare-knuckle champion for five years. Morrissey arrived in Saratoga during the Civil War when thoroughbred racing in was mostly at a standstill. He thought he could prosper by presiding over a race meeting at Saratoga.
Morrissey found that finding enough quality thoroughbreds to compete was problematic because the Union had requisitioned just about every horse it could find for the cavalry. But he was a daring and fiercely determined individual with a history of proving people wrong, and he proceeded undeterred.
The curtain rose on formal thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs on Aug. 3, 1863, as a crowd estimated at 3,000 was in attendance. Admission was $1 and the spectators watched the races from carriages. With excellent purses and quality competition, the meeting was a rousing success. More than 15,000 people attended the four days of racing.
Morrissey had a winner. The Spirit of the Times said Old Smoke’s meeting “laid the foundation for a great fashionable race meeting at the Springs.”
As the Spirit predicted, Morrissey was just getting started. With the backing of several prominent sportsmen, he opened the official Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 2, 1864. The first race was the Travers Stakes, won by a colt named Kentucky. A week later, The New York Times said, “The grandstand was a superb array of beauty and fashion, the like of which has never previously been seen in America, and has only been paralleled by Ascot or Goodwood, in England, on a Royal Cup day.”
Morrissey had received the assistance of several prominent sportsmen and financial tycoons in making the new Saratoga Race Course a reality. They included Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leonard Jerome, John Hunter, and William Travers, the namesake of the prestigious Travers Stakes and Saratoga’s first president. Morrissey’s presence was anything but inconspicuous. The team he assembled was described in the New York Herald as “a guarantee of the thoroughly high-toned character of all the proceedings.”
Morrissey was twice elected as a United States Congressman and later became a New York Senator, but his passion for Saratoga and his role at the track never diminished. He was 47 when he died at the Adelphi Hotel on May 1, 1878.
Saratoga Race Course has continued to thrive as one of the great American sporting cathedrals. Sports Illustrated ranked it as one of the top 10 sports venues in the world. Numerous legends of American racing — Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Secretariat, and Affirmed among them — made their mark at Saratoga.
More than one million attend the Saratoga races each summer. In 2024, the track will host the Belmont Stakes, perhaps with a Triple Crown on the line, as Belmont Park undergoes a major renovation. History, as it always has been, will once again be made at Saratoga.
This post is written by Communications Director Brien Bouyea from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
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