Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Opening Day at Saratoga Racecourse
When Saratoga Race Course opens for the season, there’s a lot of talk about how the city comes alive with all the associated excitement due to social goings-on and increased tourism, business and traffic.
For local residents, the change to our community is measurable in the simple things, like how long it takes to drive from one end of Broadway to the other, and many of us devise alternate routes for six weeks. While traffic is high on the list of locals’ complaints, I welcome much of what comes with racing season. During this late summer run, the vitality of our downtown is palpable. Sometimes it’s nice to get a new perspective on our home town by “playing tourist” and taking a day to experience Saratoga the way our visitors do – breakfast at the track, a stroll down Broadway going in and out of shops, lunch outside a restaurant under a canopy watching the world go by, maybe a visit to the Racing Museum. We full-time residents take a lot for granted here in Saratoga Springs. How many of us have enjoyed all it has to offer?
The New York Racing Association’s on-line Media Guide (found at www.nyra.com) devotes pages 13-16 to Saratoga Race Course, and its page on the history of Saratoga reads:
“Thoroughbred racing has no finer setting than Saratoga Race Course, named one of the world’s greatest sporting venues by Sports Illustrated. For six weeks every summer, the past comes alive in the historic grandstand as fans experience not only the best in racing, but the unmatched ambiance and charm of historic Saratoga Springs.”
The article continues:
“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 the 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.”
“Today, looking over the jam-packed backyard and grandstand on any sunny summer afternoon, it’s hard to fathom that racing at Saratoga once teetered on the brink of extinction. In the early 1960s, there was a movement to conduct summer racing exclusively at the new and modern Aqueduct Racetrack. But in 1962, New York State Governor W. Averill Harriman, who owned Log Cabin Stud, signed “The Harriman Law,” which mandated a minimum of 24 race days at Saratoga every year.”
From the New York Bred website, I found this:
An 1863 description of the track could still be written today:
". . . The main street of the place is a wide and handsome one. It is chiefly composed of hotels which are very large, well adapted to the comfort of summer visitors and no doubt well kept. We soon learned that all the hotels were full . . .The race course is well situated and quite near enough to the town. You can stand in the stable doors and look over a rich cultivated valley, many miles in width, to purple hills curtained with light summer haze far beyond."
My own personal connection to Saratoga Racecourse is that if it weren’t here, I wouldn’t be here. Not in terms of existing, but in terms of location. My father’s father, Valerian O’Farrell, and his family spent every summer in Saratoga Springs. Valerian O’Farrell was a famous New York City detective and loved the horses. There’s a lot of information about him now on Google, and, if you’re interested, you can do a search or read a little about him here: (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9C00E3DD1131E233A25755C2A9619C946096D6CF).
My father had such fond memories of his own childhood summers in Saratoga that he and my mother decided to raise their family here. He used to take us, all seven children, to the backstretch and introduce us to people—horse owners, trainers, and track workers—his father had known. We’d be given carrots and told to open our hands flat to feed the horses. I was always afraid I’d lose a finger, but it was exciting and a special time in our lives.
Had it not been for the track, my family would never have arrived here, and my life would have played out very differently. I think of that almost every time I drive by the racecourse’s beautiful grounds on Union Avenue, aware that my family’s personal history is intertwined with that of this historic place, and knowing that my father, too, was grateful for the connection.
Photo credit: http://www.racing.saratoga.ny.us/postcards/pc18.jpg
NYBred quote: http://www.nybreds.com/racing/trackhistory.html