SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Mineral springs, gambling and horses.
In this world-famous thoroughbred racing hotbed, the four-legged stars who have drawn people here since the bloodiest days of the Civil War actually took third billing coming out of the 19th-century tourism starting gate, trailing the resort spas and the casinos that offered visitors a diversion in between the taking of the waters.
“The waters brought them first, the casinos second and the horse racing third,” said Allan Carter, historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, located across Union Avenue from historic Saratoga Race Course.
It may have started out trailing the field, but “the Sport of Kings” soon took the lead and still reigns supreme in Saratoga 150 years after the first thoroughbred races were held Aug. 3, 1863. That was just a month after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg ended. A year later, the war was still raging when the second thoroughbred season was held at the newly built race course, located across the road from the site of the first races.
Over the next century and a half, Saratoga’s racing season became intertwined with America’s sporting and cultural fabric, attracting generations of robber barons and blue bloods, gangsters and celebrities, professional gamblers and $2 bettors. It’s America’s most successful racetrack and its oldest sports venue, a summertime destination that draws visitors from around the world who catch the daily racing card in between soaking up the city’s Victorian charms as well as its upscale 21st century amenities – including a vibrant nightlife, upscale shops and trendy restaurants.
“From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years,” the late sports columnist Red Smith famously wrote when offering directions to his favorite racetrack.
Saratoga is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the start of thoroughbred racing with a series of events, including concerts, exhibits and festivals centered on the racing season, which began Friday and runs through Labor Day, Sept. 2.
Americans first began trekking to Saratoga in the decades before the Civil War, when the many mineral springs dotting the area drew visitors looking for relief from various ailments. Southern plantation owners brought their families north to escape the southern heat, while wealthy New Yorkers journeyed upstate to enjoy the country air.
A thriving hotel business sprang up along Broadway, Saratoga’s main drag, as the summer crowds at “the Spa” grew through the 1840s and `50s, arriving aboard trains that deposited them just a short stroll or carriage ride from their accommodations.
Entrepreneurs soon began offering other diversions for the men bored with the daily rounds of mineral water tastings, cotillions and concerts. Gambling joints sprang up, including casinos owned by John Morrissey, an Irish-born Tammany Hall enforcer-turned-prizefighter-turned politician. But the gambling dens didn’t open until the evening, leaving the afternoon wide open for men with money to wager.
Morrissey filled that void. With the backing of several wealthy businessmen, he held the first thoroughbred races in Saratoga on a track located on Saratoga’s eastern outskirts. The next summer, they moved the races across Union Avenue to the newly built track, where the races have been held ever since.