Summer in Saratoga

In August of 1863, John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, an ex-boxer and casino owner, staged the first Thoroughbred racing at what would come to be known as “The Spa.” That first race meet was probably interspersed with the trotting races so popular at Saratoga Springs.

Morrissey and friends John R. Hunter, William Travers and Leonard Jerome also formed the Saratoga Association, with Travers as president.

Before the next summer the association had built the course where racing takes place to this day, and the original track became “Horse Haven,” a training facility.

As portrayed in the old movie Saratoga Trunk, wealthy families began leaving the summer heat of East Coast cities for “the season at The Spa.” They arrived by train, as did the horses, and were heartily welcomed by the townsfolk. The tradition has continued ever since, and the homes along historic Union Avenue come to life with summer guests.

Why go to the Spa in summer? Let us count the ways:

1.It’s a great place to learn there is no such thing as a sure thing – especially when betting on favorites. If you happen to like longshots, well, it’s also a good place to be. . . .

Here’s how Saratoga Race Course earned its “Graveyard of Champions” sobriquet:

  • Upset defeated Man o’ War in the Sanford Memorial Stakes on August 13, 1919. It was the only defeat of Man o’ War’s 21-race career.
  • A 110-1 shot named Jim Dandy upset Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the Travers Stakes on August
    16, 1930.
  • Onion upset Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes on August 4, 1973.
  • Nearly On Time, a long shot carrying young Steve Cauthen at 103 pounds, upset three-time Horse of the Year Forego, under an impost of 136 pounds, in the 1977 Whitney.
  • Willow Hour upset Pleasant Colony, Lord Avie and Summing in the 1981 Travers.
  • Quaze Quilt upset Triple Tiara champion Chris Evert in the 1974 Alabama Stakes.
  • A long shot named Runaway Groom upset the three winners of the Triple Crown races?Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol, Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler and Belmont Stakes champion Conquistador Cielo?in the 1982 Travers.2. Strange things happen at the Spa:
    In 1979, during a grass race, a 3-year-old filly named House Pet took a left turn through the infield hedge and jumped into the lake.

    Three horses were left behind by the starter for the 1980 running of the DeWitt Clinton. People who wagered on any of the three got their money back, and the New York Racing Association added a $100,000 stake with similar conditions to the schedule to give all the owners an additional chance at the money.

    In 1987, Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret bolted during a race.

    Allemeuse was incorrectly disqualified from a 1986 race, causing a hullabaloo. The ruling was reversed, but the wronged bettors (some of whom sued) never got their money.

    In 1983, chef George Crum invented potato chips in Cary Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake. He meant them as a rebuke to a customer who demanded his French fries cut thinner and fried longer. Crum slivered a couple of potatoes, wrapped them in paper and froze them. A half-hour later, he fried them. The chips soon became regular fare at Moon’s Lake House, and Cary Moon began mass-producing the chips under the name Saratoga Specialties Company. A restaurant still marks the historic site.3. Saratoga Springs and the track have always attracted the rich and famous.
    Visitors have included Diamond Jim Brady and his girlfriend Lillian Russell, Will Rogers, Jack Dempsey, Al Jolson, Damon Runyon, Mayor Jimmy Russell of New York, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cab Galloway.
    4. You can get inspired visiting the historic grounds of Yaddo.
    This eighteenth century estate is a haven for writers, artists, musicians and other creative types — by invitation only. Carson McCullers and Truman Capote spent time here, and Edgar Allen Poe reportedly wrote the poem “The Raven” at Yaddo. Owners Spencer Trask, a financier who backed Thomas Edison and was a major partner in The New York Times, and his wife, Katerina, stipulated in their wills that the estate be turned into a permanent retreat for artists, writers and composers.
    5. Sample the mineral springs that first drew Indians and later, settlers, to the area.
    Though no longer considered a medicinal cure, there is nothing better than a soak in a tub of spring water followed by a professional massage. Fortunately, the New York State Legislature stepped in to preserve waters that had been nearly depleted early in the twentieth century by the commercial sale of bottled sparkling water. The legislature created the State Reservation at Saratoga, buying 122 springs on 1,300 acres of wooded grounds, and left the springs alone for eight years to replenish themselves. The state also built a gorgeous sprawling complex called the Hall of Springs.
    6. Saratoga’s polo season features the high-goal sport at its best.
    This ancient sport has a Saratoga history every bit as storied as that of the track. Saratoga Polo Club was founded in 1898 with a member of the Whitney family as patron. Roland W. Smith was president, and the club’s colors were white and green. Famous horse owners, polo greats and socialites associated with the club over the years include H.P. Whitney, William Waldorf Astor, August Belmont and August Belmont Jr., Harry Payne Whitney (who boasted a 10-goal handicap), Winston Guest of Yale fame, W. Averill Harriman and Marshall Field.
    7. Saratoga Springs was named the first winner of the American Heritage Great American Place award in 1997.
    The Victorian architecture of the old “summer places” is spotlessly maintained, and you must stroll through Congress Park?not just to see the gardens and noisy ducks but also Canfield Casino, where the biggest gamblers in the world once reigned during the height of Saratoga’s nineteenth-century popularity. Nowadays, Canfield Casino houses a museum on the third floor; the first floor, filled with grand mirrors and chandeliers, looks just as it did 100 years ago and is used for wedding receptions and other festive occasions.
    8. Visit the Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, a delightful repository of racing memorabilia.
    This is the place to see old trophies, memorabilia and interactive exhibits on the Hall of Fame members — equine heroes as Secretariat, Man o’ War, Ruffian and Citation; legendary jockeys Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, Julie Krone and Angel Cordero; and master trainers Charlie VVhittingham, Ben and Jim Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Woody Stephens.
    9. See the best in sporting art.
    Saratoga attracts the best equine artists in the country, who display their work in a variety of galleries and hotels throughout the town.
    If you love horses and the equestrian lifestyle, Saratoga is a magical place, the ONLY place, to spend the summer.

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