By MIKE KANE, racing historian and contributing editor for Saratoga Living magazine
Saratoga’s renaissance, orchestrated by William C. Whitney and his partners, was interrupted when anti-gambling legislation — the Hart-Agnew Law — successfully forced the cessation of racing in New York in 1910. With Saratoga Race Course and the other tracks in the state closed during 1911 and 1912, many prominent owners sent their best horses to Europe and others sold their bloodstock and closed their farms.
Yet the decade that began amidst chaos and uncertainty emerged as a golden era in Saratoga’s history, featuring some of the sport’s most famous horses, horsemen, and races.
Easily topping the remarkable list of runners, which includes such greats as Regret, Old Rosebud, Roamer, Sir Barton, Billy Kelly, and Exterminator, is the incomparable Man o’ War. August Belmont’s son of Fair Play was purchased for $5,000 at auction in August 1918 at Saratoga and suffered the only loss in his brilliant 21-race career there the next summer to a horse named Upset in the Sanford Memorial.
Racing in New York ended with a victory by a horse named Belfast on the final day of the Saratoga meeting on Aug. 31, 1910. Since none of the downstate tracks were planning to use their dates after Saratoga, the season was extended three days so that the rich Futurity, normally run at the Coney Island Jockey Club, could be held. Samuel Hildreth’s colt Novelty won the Futurity, completing a spectacular season in which he won five stakes and six of seven starts at Saratoga.
The Hart-Agnew bill, was passed in 1908, but failed to withstand court challenges. However, when a stronger piece of legislation was passed that made directors of the tracks liable for any illegal activity — no matter whether they were aware of it — the tracks were closed. Though attempts were made to change the law, racing finally resumed as the result of a technicality after a judge ruled in late 1912 that the liability rule could not be enforced.
A crowd of 7,000 attended the reopening of Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 2, 1913. Old Rosebud won the Flash, the third race of the afternoon that started the 50th anniversary of racing at Saratoga. Old Rosebud also won the United States Hotel stakes, his 10th victory in 12 races that year. The following May he won the Kentucky Derby.
Roamer earned the first of his many Saratoga victories in the 1913 Adirondack Handicap. By the time his 98-race career ended in 1919, he had won the Travers and the Saratoga Cup, as well as three runnings of the Saratoga Handicap.
Another young star emerged in 1914, the filly Regret, who began her career by sweeping the Saratoga Special, the Sanford, and the Hopeful for owner Harry Payne Whitney and trainer James Rowe. The next year, without a prep race, she won the Kentucky Derby.
Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, but in the summer of 1918 at Saratoga he was losing badly to stablemate Billy Kelly. Exterminator, winner of the 1918 Derby, was a well-beaten fourth and last to entrymate Sun Briar in the Travers.
The world was finally at peace in 1919 after years of turmoil in Europe, and Man o’ War served notice that summer that he was a super horse. He arrived at Saratoga with a 5-0 record and promptly added the United States Hotel to his resume. His seventh start, in the Sanford Memorial on Aug.13, was a nightmare and nearly 100 years later that race remains very much a part of track lore. With a substitute starter working that day because Mars Cassidy had called in sick, Man o’ War and jockey Johnny Loftus got away slowly. They were trapped on the rail for a while in the stretch and finished a half-length behind Upset, who was carrying 15 fewer pounds.
The mighty Man o’ War had lost at Saratoga, a track that has claimed many short-priced stars through the decades.