For all she has been in the past and all that she promises in the future, Saratoga is a symbol to those who love the thoroughbred that is far greater than any one event, regardless of its cachet. As such, Saratoga is a subject for a writer that presents the greatest of challenges.
Saratoga is, metaphorically, like a woman who has fully matured into the essence of herself. She may have creases and a more generous waistline, but she also has a deep lustre in her eye and a way of being in the world that bespeaks an awareness of the narratives that have informed her life.
The great American writer H.D. was fascinated by the idea of the palimpsest and its implications in the telling of stories. A palimpsest is defined as ” … a piece of manuscript or writing material in which the original has been effaced to make room for new writing” or “something reused or altered that still bears the traces of its earlier form.” This image befits Saratoga, a place where history comes to life again each midsummer.
A generous history that embraces new narratives even as it respects the old.
Named after the Iroquois “Sarachtogue” meaning either “place of swift water” or “hillside by great river,” Saratoga was recognized as a village in 1826. Gideon Putnam had earlier made a savvy investment in the little community’s future by erecting two hotels, the Grand Union and the Congress. It didn’t take long before the rich mineral waters and beautiful surroundings beckoned the wealthy, and still more hotels were built to accommodate a steady stream of affluent Victorian ladies and gentlemen.
In 1863, John Morrissey arrived in Saratoga with a vision. He wanted to open a site that would feature thoroughbred horse racing and he piloted the idea in that year, in the form of a 4-day meeting. It was a great success and Morrissey joined forces with William Hunter, Leonard Jerome and William R. Travers to build the Saratoga Race Course on 125 acres, situated across from the trotting grounds. The track opened for business on August 2, 1864.
Travers, a wealthy New York lawyer and socialite, served as the track’s first president. The Travers Stakes, America’s oldest thoroughbred horse race, was named after the ebullient and well-loved millionaire and was won for the very first time in 1864 by a colt named Kentucky. A case of history turning in unexpected ways: had it not been for John Morrissey, there would likely have never been a Saratoga Race Course at all. In truth, Morrissey was not really the type of character that one would immortalize: he was brilliant, but in a world of crystal chandeliers, ladies in rustling silk and powerful men, a cocky young Irishman who’d earned fame in boxing rings and gambling houses would definitely have been perceived as the “rough edge out.”
Of course, there are other races run at Saratoga that have become as famous as the Travers, each carrying its own history and narratives. Among the better known Grade I stakes are the Alabama, Coaching Club American Oaks, Hopeful, Spinaway, Whitney and the Woodward. At Grade II, there is the Jim Dandy and the Sanford, while at Grade III, the James Marvin. For the steeplechasers, there are another two graded stakes: the NY Turf Writers’ Handicap and the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Handicap.
Often, the most famous of these stories recount the defeat of a legend, adding credence to Saratoga’s darker reputation, as the “graveyard of champions.” Too, there have been performances that dazzled even the most experienced of racing fans.
Nor does the historical patina of Saratoga Race Course end with the narratives of great races. There are a number of graded stakes named after champion thoroughbreds too, equine beings who graced the track and became immortal: Jim Dandy, Forego, Go For Wand, Personal Ensign, Ruffian, Sword Dancer, King’s Bishop, Fourstardave, Honorable Miss, Victory Ride, With Anticipation, De La Rose and most recently, champions Funny Cide and Curlin.
A who’s who of great Americans are also associated with Saratoga, among them MaryLou Whitney, Barbara Livingston, Monty Woolley, Jerry Bailey, Danny Hakim, Steven Millhauser, Ulysses S. Grant, George Crum and Nick Steele. Another American icon — the potato chip — was invented in or near Saratoga. And the town has been the site of a number of well-known movies, among them: Saratoga (1937), The Way We Were (1973), The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Seabiscuit (2003).
Yes, the romance of Saratoga was not wasted on movie moguls and in its first few decades, horses who have become the elite of American racing lent their hooves and hearts to the image.
The decade of the 1870’s was framed by the battle of two equine titans in the 1872 Saratoga Cup: Harry Bassett and Longfellow. Racing right down to the wire, it was almost impossible to call the winner. But in the end it was Harry Bassett — only later would it be learned that one of Longfellow’s shoes had turned, embedding itself in the loser’s foot.
In the 1880’s it was the greats Luke Blackburn (winner of 22 of 24 starts), Hindoo (who won the Travers, the Sequel, the US Hotel and Kenner Stakes at Saratoga), Miss Woodford (winner of the Spinaway and the Alabama), as well as Hanover, Emperor of Norfolk and Kingston who wowed them at Saratoga.
Perhaps, though, it is indeed America’s oldest thoroughbred horse race — the Travers — raced on America’s oldest race course, that trumps all other stakes during the Saratoga meet. Even today, it is the race that socialite, sports writer and racing fan alike cannot afford to miss. No surprise there. The sheer number of great thoroughbreds who have appeared in the Travers since 1864 is mind-boggling.
The race itself has varied in distance since the first running. From 1864-1889 it was run over 1 3/4 miles; from 1890-1892 over 1 1/2 miles; in 1893-94 at 1 1/4 and in 1895 and 1901-1903, at 1 1/8. Finally, in 1903, the distance was set at 1 1/4 miles. The Travers Trophy, known as the Man O’ War Cup, was designed by Tiffany & Co. and first presented by Mrs. Samuel Riddle to commemorate Man O’ War’s Travers victory in 1920. A gold-plated facsimile of the original cup, now known as The Travers Cup, is still presented to the winner each year. As well, a canoe that sits in the Saratoga infield is painted in the winner’s colours and a jockey statue that sits at the entrance is similarly refurbished in the jockey’s silks.
In its second running, at 1 3/4 miles, it was the filly, Maiden, who won the Travers. Her win christened a trend: in its first 5 years, fillies would win the Travers 3 times and colts, twice. In the first dozen years of the race, fillies would win four times, all going at the original distance of almost 2 miles. Their names were: Maiden (1865), Ruthless (1867), The Banshee (1868) and Sultana (1876). And of these 4, it was Ruthless who is remembered today.
A bay filly with two white feet and a white snip on her brow, Ruthless was owned and bred by New Yorker, Francis Morris and raced for his Holmdell Stable. Her sire was an imported stallion named Eclipse (1855) and her dam, Barbarity (1854) by Simoon (1838), another British import. The pair also produced four full sisters to Ruthless — Relentless, Remorseless, Regardless and Merciless — who were very good indeed, although none was as accomplished as Ruthless. The sisters became known as the “Barbarous Battalion.” (Eclipse and Barbarity also produced colts, none of whom distinguished themselves.)
Ruthless won both the inaugural running of the Belmont Stakes and the second running of the Travers in the same year. In all, she raced 11 times and finished first or second in each start, all of which were in mixed company. The mighty mare was retired and produced 3 foals, including one by her own sire, Eclipse. Of these, only BattleAxe2 appears to have done much on the track.
Tragically, the champion was shot by a hunter while grazing in a pasture on her owner’s property in 1876 and died a short time later of her injuries.
Over the years, the list of winners of the Travers consistently impresses. Twenty Grand (1931), Whirlaway (1941), Native Dancer (1953), Buckpasser (1966), Damascus (1967), Thunder Gulch (1995), Birdstone (2004) and Street Sense (2007) are only a few of the champions to be recorded on the Travers’ roster. Most recently, sires Medaglia d’Oro (Rachel Alexandra) and Flower Alley (I’ll Have Another) won the Travers, underscoring the connection between this historic contest and the evolution of thoroughbred bloodlines.
One of the most exciting Travers ever run was arguably contested in 1962, when rivals Ridan and Jaipur went at it still again ……
In 1982, Canada made history at Saratoga when her Triple Crown winner, Runaway Groom, captured the Travers and became the only horse to ever defeat the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Gat Del Sol), Preakness (Aloma’s Ruler) and Belmont Stakes (Conquistador Cielo) in one race.
It was Holy Bull in 1994 under jockey, Mike Smith. And the great champion did not disappoint……
Our tribute to Saratoga Race Course and its central place in the story of American thoroughbred racing ends with Bernardini’s breathtaking victory in the Travers of 2006.
The day was sweltering, but the elegant son of A.P. Indy hardly shed a single bead of sweat as he walked into the starting gate. That day, there would be no tragedy on the track to dwarf the winner’s talent and drive, as had been the case in the Preakness. As Bernardini turned for home, leaving Bluegrass Cat and the others in his wake, the sense that they were watching a great horse hushed the spectators. When he crossed the wire, Bernardini joined a very select group of Man O’ War and Damascus as only the third horse in American racing history to win the Preakness, the Travers and the Jockey Gold Cup in the same year. As a sire, it only took 5 years for Bernardini to sire his own Travers’ winner: Stay Thirsty (2011).
Even though it is only one layer in the palimpsest that is midsummer horse racing at Saratoga, the Travers’ remains a test of thoroughbred excellence — as revered today as it was that very first day in 1864 when Kentucky came home a winner.