Thoroughbred racing has no finer setting than Saratoga Race Course, which this year will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its opening. Named one of the world’s greatest sporting venues by Sports Illustrated, the past comes alive in the historic grandstand every summer as fans experience not only the best in racing, but the unmatched ambience and charm of historic Saratoga Springs.
Already famous for its mineral baths, Saratoga held its first thoroughbred meet just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Staged by gambler, casino owner, ex-boxing champion and future Congressman John “Old Smoke” Morrissey and beginning on August 3, 1863, the four-day meet drew thousands of locals and tourists who saw Lizzie W. defeat Captain Moore in the best-of-three series of races.
Emboldened by the success of that first meet, Morrissey promptly enlisted his friends John R. Hunter, William Travers and Leonard Jerome to form the Saratoga Association. Its first responsibility was the construction of a new, permanent grandstand on the current site of Saratoga Race Course. Across the street, the “old course” became the barn area known as Horse Haven, with the vestiges of the original track still encircling the stables.
While the summer meet routinely drew weekday crowds of more than 10,000 during the 1950’s, there was concern that the Greater New York Association, formed in 1955, would run a concurrent meet downstate. In April, 1957, Gov. Averill Harriman signed into law a bill that prohibited a simultaneous downstate meet and also guaranteed a minimum of 24 days of racing at the Spa. In 1963, the construction of the Northway provided a direct highway route from the Thruway exit in Albany to the racetrack.
Nowadays, the population of Saratoga Springs triples to 75,000 when the thoroughbreds return each summer, with those who come for the races discovering the area’s amazing breadth of history and culture.
With more than 1,000 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Saratoga Springs was honored with the first American Heritage Magazine “Great American Place” award and the National Trust for Historic Places’ “Great American Main Street” award. Walking Magazine cited it as one of America’s “Most Walkable Cities.”
Saratoga Springs is home to the National Museum of Racing, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), the National Museum of the Dance, Skidmore College, and many art galleries. Resplendent in Victorian architecture, it also boasts Yaddo Rose Gardens, the Little Theatre at SPAC, the Saratoga Music Hall and the Foundation for Baroque Music. Nearby, Saratoga Battlefield in Stillwater is dedicated to “The Turning Point of the American Revolution,” while Ulysses S. Grant’s Cottage at Mt. McGregor is where the bankrupt former president and Civil War hero, wrote his memoirs and restored his family’s fortune.
Although some may quibble with the order, it’s no wonder that Saratoga’s motto is “Health, history, and horses.”