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There are numerous reasons why Saratoga is as popular a place as any racetrack in the United States. Tradition, summertime fun, and a bucolic setting all play a part in the magic of the Upstate New York track. But first and foremost, it’s about the wonderful horses that each summer make the journey up to the small town to be a part of the history and quality racing.
Home to the Travers Stakes, also known as the Mid-Summer Derby, the world’s greatest thoroughbreds have been traveling to the hallowed ground for better than a century and a half.
Affectionately known as the Spa, Saratoga Race Course never fails in bringing the best American racing has to offer. From Man o’ War to American Pharoah; from Gallant Fox to Rachel Alexandra; and from Secretariat to Wise Dan, most of the sport’s all-time great runners have visited Saratoga on at least one occasion.
Saratoga is also about the community and the fans. An upstate summer oasis from New York City, the small town of Saratoga Springs comes alive during the meet and it seems everyone is there to celebrate the racing at the town’s heart. The community is so immersed in the activities at the racetrack that the average daily attendance at Saratoga Race Course is often greater than the total population of Saratoga Springs itself.
Located approximately 30 miles north of the state capital of Albany, and about a three-hour drive north of New York City, Saratoga Race Course has been a premier summertime racetrack since its opening more than fifteen decades ago.
While the greater New York City area and its two racetracks, Belmont Park and Aqueduct carry the torch for the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for most of the year, it is Saratoga in the summer which is looked forward to with both great anticipation and reverence. A quick blast of stormy weather is no stranger to the Upstate New York track, but overall the weather is much more favorable than the heat and humidity found downstate.
Since its official opening back in 1864, Saratoga has been the place to be for owners, horsemen, and fans. The original Saratoga meet lasted only four days, but as its popularity grew, the summer season has continued to meet the rabid demand to be at the Spa. Gradually increasing in length over time, the meet now lasts for eight weeks, spanning from mid-July through the Labor Day holiday in early September.
More popular today than ever, the historic racetrack in Upstate New York will continue its tradition of being East Coast racing’s summer mecca for the foreseeable future.
Ex-boxing champion John Morrissey, who was also a gambler and casino owner, began Saratoga’s first thoroughbred meet back on August 3, 1863. The future congressman held the four day meet at the old dirt track near the center of town on Union Ave. The event was a huge success, drawing over 5,000 horse fans more than willing to watch the races and make a wager or two.
Morrissey knew he had started something special, and the idea for the racecourse took shape. With the help of his friends, the sporting gentleman worked to make Saratoga a reality.
First, the Saratoga Racing Association was formed along with contributions from Morrissey friends, John Hunter, Leonard Jerome, and William Travers. The new association successfully acquired 125 acres of land across the street from the old dirt track on Union Ave. Construction on a new grandstand was quickly undertaken, and Saratoga Race Course was officially open for business in the summer of 1864.
The Travers Stakes is the most recognizable of all the big races held annually at Saratoga. Inaugurated in 1864, it was named for the owner of the racehorse Kentucky, the first winner of the race. The owner, William Travers, was a founding member and served as president of the old Saratoga Racing Association.
With remarkable energy, the racecourse has flourished. Led by the Mid-Summer Derby, for the last 150+ years, Saratoga has been unrivaled as the summertime destination for the best of American racing.
As popular as it is, and for as long as it has been around, you better believe Saratoga is rich with great traditions. None of these traditions are more “Saratoga” than the track’s ability to produce amazing upsets.
It was the Sanford Stakes in 1919, and the shocking defeat of the mighty Man O’ War, that created the now commonplace word in the language of sports to describe a surprising result. Of course, the name of the horse that handed Man O’ War his only career defeat was Upset.
In 1930, Saratoga built on its reputation for the upset when the great Triple Crown champion Gallant Fox was defeated by a horse a 100-1 shot named Jim Dandy in the Travers Stakes. It was then that the track officially earned its nickname “The Graveyard of Champions.”
The tradition of big upsets at Saratoga has continued ever since. Perhaps the biggest surprise there in modern racing took place when the greatest Triple Crown winner of them all, Secretariat, was bested by the lightly regarded Onion in the 1973 Whitney.
More recently, Keen Ice interrupted the magical season of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic champion American Pharoah with a surprising late surge in the 2015 edition of the Travers Stakes.
There’s nothing quite like the backyard at Saratoga. Picnic tables galore are still not enough to fill the demand. So much so that fans sprint into the area when the gates open to secure their day’s table. Great food and drinks are offered, but coolers and food are welcome to be brought in. The backyard also offers a rare opportunity to see the horses walk down a white-fenced path, right through the crowd, to get to the Spa’s picturesque paddock before their races. With plenty of betting windows as well, you can spend an entire afternoon there without ever going to the front side of the track.
One of the track’s best-known spots is the Big Red Spring. Located in the backyard picnic area, the mineral spring first opened in 1975. Named after both Secretariat and Man o’ War, the spring has been a popular destination for racegoers to visit. Whether for a good luck rinse of the hands or to drink a cup full of the mineral water, fans flock there each day of racing.
The pond in the infield of Saratoga would not be the same without the Travers canoe. Immediately following the running of each year’s Travers Stakes, a painter adorns the vessel with the colors of the silks of the winning owner. Floating quietly in the middle of the infield pond, the canoe is a constant reminder to patrons of the previous year’s winner of Saratoga’s most prestigious race.
One of the longstanding traditions at Saratoga is the ringing of the bell. Rung by hand, the bell lets everyone know that it’s time to get ready for the next race. It rings exactly 17 minutes before each post.
The Oklahoma Training Track, on the other side of Union Avenue from the racetrack itself, was the site of the first races in Saratoga Springs in 1863. Originally named Horse Haven, it now serves as an ideal and picturesque training track for horses and humans alike. A morning at Oklahoma is a true step back in history with a public viewing of the horses working out and a chance to watch next to the nation’s leading horsemen.
Over the years, many of the greatest horses in the history of American racing have summered at Saratoga to compete at arguably America’s greatest race meet. Below are just a few of the legends of the Spa.
We know of the monumental upset of Man O’ War by Upset in the Sanford Stakes, but otherwise, the original “Big Red” enjoyed a splendid career at Saratoga. As a juvenile, the champion ran at the Spa in four stakes races and won three of them. A very unlucky loser in the 1919 edition of the Sanford, Man O’ War culminated his 2-year-old summer in Upstate New York with a romping win in the Hopeful Stakes. The following year, the great son of Fair Play was even better, easily accounting for the Miller Stakes before setting a track record in winning the Travers Stakes of 1920. And for the record, the horse that finished second to him in that edition of the Mid-Summer Derby was none other than Upset.
No winner of the Triple Crown ran in more races than did the great Whirlaway, and six of his career starts came at the Spa. In 1940, “Mr. Longtail’’ ran there four times at 2, and fared no worse than second place. His victories that year included the Saratoga Special and the Hopeful. At 3, not far removed from his sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, Whirlaway won both of his starts at Saratoga. First he won the Saranac, before coming back ten days later to become the only horse ever to officially win both the American Triple Crown and the Travers Stakes.
In what many still consider to be the greatest horse race in history, Jaipur and Ridan dueled in an unforgettable edition of the Mid-Summer Derby. The Travers brought together two of the top 3-year-olds of 1962 and the pair would not disappoint. Jaipur defeated his talented rival by the bob of a nose after an incredible head-to-head battle which lasted the entire 10 furlongs of the Travers. The final time of 2:01 3/5 not only equaled the track record set 16 years earlier but broke the longstanding stakes record set by Man o’ War in 1920. The narrow victory for Jaipur over Ridan was the deciding factor in being named the Champion 3-Year-Old of 1962.
Certainly not the legendary name as some other horses on the list, the New York-bred nonetheless etched his name in Saratoga lore with his continued success at the Spa. Nicknamed “The Sultan of Saratoga”, the gelded son of Compliance won at least one race at the Upstate New York racecourse in eight consecutive seasons from 1987 through 1994. Overall, he won 21 times out of 100 career races, but it was at the Spa where he will be most fondly remembered. Among his many stakes victories there included the 1991 edition of Daryl’s Joy, where Fourstardave ran 1 1⁄16 miles on the turf in 1:38.91, a course record time that would stand for two dozen years.
In recent years perhaps no horse spurred on a bigger fan base at Saratoga than the star filly, Rachel Alexandra. As the final race of her 2009 season, arguably the greatest year ever enjoyed by a 3-year-old filly, the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro “raised the rafters” at Saratoga, as coined by Saratoga’s legendary race caller Tom Durkin, when she beat older males in the prestigious Woodward Stakes. The Horse of the Year was not immune to the “Graveyard of Champions”, though as she was passed late in the following year’s Personal Ensign Stakes.
On the human side, the legendary Angel Cordero Jr. won 14 riding titles at Saratoga which included a remarkable run of 11 consecutive titles in the years from 1976 through 1986. A native of Puerto Rico, Cordero won his first riding title at the Spa in 1967 but waited nine more years before his second, which began his amazing streak. Cordero went on to train horses, before finding even great success as a jockey agent. A member of racing’s Hall of Fame, The Saratoga riding title is now officially named after Cordero.
His training counterpart is the seven-time Eclipse Award winner as Outstanding Trainer, Todd Pletcher. The Texas native, and former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, has won a total of 13 training titles at Saratoga. A two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, and three-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, he is also a multiple winners of some of Saratoga’s biggest races, including the Travers and Whitney. Although he has been surpassed for the Spa training title in recent years by Chad Brown, Pletcher remains one of the most consistent winners at the Upstate New York oval.
Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.
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