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America’s Most Historic Racetrack

Since the days of the Civil War, Saratoga Springs has been intertwined with the rich traditions of thoroughbred racing. The country’s oldest active sporting venue, the fabled Saratoga Race Course, opened here in 1864, one year after a bare-knuckle boxing champion announced his presence with authority on the local scene with an idea that set the stage for a summer tradition that has stood the test of time for 160 years.

In 1863, John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, at the age of 32, 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. With his pugilistic days in the past, Morrissey arrived in Saratoga during the Civil War. Thoroughbred racing in the country was mostly at a standstill as the war raged in the South, so Morrissey thought he could prosper by conceiving and presiding over a race meeting at Saratoga.

Taking place during the first term of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Saratoga’s inaugural four-day thoroughbred meeting was held at an old trotting course — today known as Horse Haven — that played host to harness racing and the state fair in 1847.

The odds were against Morrissey for several reasons, the war being first and foremost. In fact, even finding enough quality thoroughbreds to compete was problematic because the Union had requisitioned just about every horse it could find for the cavalry. Morrissey, however, was a daring and fiercely determined individual with a history of proving people wrong. He proceeded undeterred, trusting his entrepreneurial vision and sheer will.

Morrissey was a mastermind and a fantastic promoter. He had no trouble convincing some of the top sportsmen in the country to back his endeavor. This was no small accomplishment considering many of the top stable owners hailed from the war-ravaged southern states. The social climate between the North and South was contentious at best, downright hostile at worst.

The curtain rose on formal thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs on Aug. 3, 1863, as a crowd estimated at 3,000 attended Morrissey’s opening day. Admission was $1 and the spectators watched the races from carriages, as there was no public viewing stand. 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 delivered a winner. The Spirit of the Times said Old Smoke’s meeting “laid the foundation for a great fashionable race meeting at the Springs” and added “the formation of a competent club, and further proceedings, would seem to be a matter of course.”

As the Spirit predicted, Morrissey was just getting started. With the backing of several prominent sportsmen, Morrissey opened Saratoga Race Course across the street from the trotting grounds on Aug. 2, 1864. The first race was the Travers Stakes, won by a mighty colt named Kentucky. A week later, at the conclusion of the first season at the new track, The New York Times said, “Brilliant as had been the previous portion of the Saratoga meeting, it culminated in a blaze of glory on Saturday, the concluding day. 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 received the assistance of several prominent sportsmen and financial tycoons in making the new Saratoga Race Course a reality. By all accounts, Old Smoke was wealthy enough to finance the new track, but his reputation as an ex-fighter and former member of the Dead Rabbits, a feared New York City street gang, turned off much of the posh crowd he hoped to bring to the races and profit from.

Those who backed Morrissey included Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leonard Jerome, John Hunter, and William Travers, the namesake of the prestigious Travers Stakes and Saratoga’s first president. A Baltimore-born financier and stockbroker with an affable personality, Travers had the requisite popularity in New York City society that made him an ideal choice as the figurehead of the new track.

Morrissey kept his name out of the incorporation documents, but his presence was anything but inconspicuous. He owned the majority of the stock in the Saratoga Association, a fact he later testified to on the floor of the New York Senate. The team Morrissey assembled was described in the New York Herald as “a guarantee of the thoroughly high-toned character of all the proceedings.”

Morrissey became even more powerful and important as the years progressed. He 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. Morrissey was 47 when he died at the Adelphi Hotel on May 1, 1878.

“No old habitué of the track could avoid noticing the absence of a certain stalwart form with coat sleeves brushed back from his wrists, moving up and down the quarterstretch,” The Saratogian commented later that summer. “Like some of the horses he admired so much, Mr. Morrissey had passed away, but the good order which he did so much to establish promises to survive him.”

It most certainly did. Through the procession of time, Saratoga Race Course has continued to thrive as one the great American sporting cathedrals. Sports Illustrated ranked the track 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 — all 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.