By BRIEN BOUYEA, Communications Officer, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
The glorious tradition of the America's most prestigious thoroughbred racing meet, which renews each summer in Saratoga Springs, was the brainchild of a onetime street brawler who later became an undefeated boxing champion, legendary gambler, and influential politician.
Irish immigrant John Morrissey arrived in the Spa City with a vision of entertaining the masses with enthralling thoroughbred racing. Morrissey's dream became reality on Aug. 3, 1863 when he launched a four-day meet at the old trotting track on Union Ave., which later became known as Horse Haven.
Morrissey presided over a most successful endeavor. Twenty-four horses competed in eight races throughout the four days, and crowds in excess of 5,000 swarmed the tiny locale to watch and wager on Morrissey's meet. In the inaugural race, a 3-year-old filly named Lizzie W. – with a one-eyed jockey in the irons – defeated the colt Captain Moore. Of the eight races at the first Saratoga meet, seven of the winners were trained by the African-American conditioner Bill Bird.
Morrissey knew he had a winner – and he knew he needed to expand. Along with the wealthy and respected William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and William Hunter, Morrissey secured 125 acres of land across the street from the trotting grounds to construct Saratoga Race Course. The new track, which is now the oldest active sporting venue in the United States, opened Aug. 2, 1864. The first race was the Travers Stakes, which was won by the legendary colt Kentucky.
Saratoga quickly became one of the top thoroughbred tracks in the land, and the Spa City, which already had a long history as a resort destination, prospered tremendously as a result. The biggest star on the Saratoga oval in the early days was the future Hall of Famer Kentucky. Along with his Travers score, Kentucky added victories in the first two runnings of the prestigious Saratoga Cup during a stretch in which he won 20 consecutive races. Another of the early standouts at the Spa was Ruthless, the first filly to win the Travers (1867).
Other notable events in Saratoga's formative years include the track's first hurdle race (1864), as well as a dinner party at the United States Hotel, from which it was decided to hold a stakes race to open a new track in Maryland. That track was eventually named Pimlico, and it became the home to the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.
Saratoga Springs grew along with the track. During organized racing's early years at the Spa, the town also saw the Adirondack Railroad begin operations and the opening of the first public high school.