By MIKE KANE, racing historian and contributing editor for Saratoga Living magazine
While it was the Gay 90s elsewhere, the final decade of the 19th century was the darkest period for racing in Saratoga Springs.
Under the ownership of the notorious Gottfried Walbaum, the quality of competition slipped badly, prominent races like the Travers and Alabama were not run in some years and the track was closed in 1896. A good barometer of the decline of racing is that only two future Hall of Fame horses, Henry of Navarre and Hamburg, won races at Saratoga after Walbaum gained control prior to the 1892 season.
Walbaum operated gambling houses in New York City and was a principal in the Hudson County Jockey Club, which ran the infamous Guttenburg track that conducted winter racing in Bergen County, N.J. In 1891, Walbaum and associates purchased Saratoga Race Course from Edward Spencer, who also ran the gambling house now known as the Canfield Casino. Among the changes the Walbaum group introduced was moving the first post time from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., which infuriated hotel owners, and a controversial betting area for women.
Newspapers reported dissatisfaction with Walbaum's management of the track and there were allegations of races being fixed. In 1894, the newly formed Jockey Club and the horsemen in New York sought assurances from the Saratoga group that it would adhere to the same standards that were in place at New York City tracks. Walbaum agreed and a 30-day meeting was held. By the next year, with anti-gambling sentiment growing, betting prohibited at the race course, and the racing product continuing to deteriorate, business was so bad at the track that the season was shortened from 40 to 28 days. The situation was so dire that The New York Times reported on Aug. 11 that racing would not be held in 1896.
The Saratoga Association cancelled the season in January because of a dispute with the Jockey Club over the number of exclusive August dates it received. Rather than compete with the Coney Island Jockey Club track for horses and attention after Friday, Aug. 14, the Saratoga Association announced it would not conduct racing. Its statement said: "The dates allotted give to us only 11 racing days in August without conflict. This leaves the association no other alternative other than to cancel the meeting or to sustain a heavy loss."
Racing returned on July 28, 1897 and a 22-day meeting was held. Walbaum operated the track for the remainder of the decade, but Saratoga racing had clearly lost its luster.