By BRIEN BOUYEA, Communications Officer, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
While the country’s economy was devastated by the Great Depression and an estimated four million were out of work nationwide, Saratoga Race Course continued to thrive in the 1930s. People flocked to the track in record numbers and witnessed some of the most memorable events in the history of thoroughbred racing.
The decade at the Spa began with one of the greatest upsets in racing annals. Gallant Fox, America’s second Triple Crown winner and the sport’s biggest star since Man o’ War a decade earlier, arrived at Saratoga a month prior to the 1930 Travers and was the talk of the town leading up to the Midsummer Derby.
New York Gov. and future U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among the estimated 50,000 in attendance on Aug. 16, 1930 for the Travers. Saratoga already had a long history of upsets, but this was the race that cemented the Spa’s reputation as the “graveyard of favorites.”
On a muddy track, the unheralded Jim Dandy pulled off the grandest Travers shocker, defeating Gallant Fox by eight lengths at 100-1 odds. It was the only victory in 20 starts for Jim Dandy that year. For Gallant Fox, it was the single blemish among his 10 starts in 1930. He came back two weeks after the Travers to win the Saratoga Cup and became the first horse in the world to eclipse $300,000 in earnings for a single year.
Other equine heroes of the decade included a brilliant son of Man o’ War, 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, a future Hall of Famer who won the Whitney, Saratoga Cup, Saratoga Handicap, and Wilson. Another eventual Hall of Famer, Discovery, also flourished at the Spa, becoming the only horse to win the Whitney three consecutive years (1934-36). The legendary Seabiscuit also appeared at Saratoga, but the Biscuit was not yet the icon he would become. He won only the Mohawk Claiming Stakes in four starts at Saratoga.
The horses weren’t alone in making history. Jockey Eddie Arcaro won the first of his record-tying four Travers in 1938 with Thanksgiving, while trainer Bert Mulholland saddled the first of his record five Travers winners (Hall of Famer Eight Thirty) the following year. Both Arcaro and Mulholland earned their way into the Hall of Fame.
Off the track, life was grand in Saratoga. Bucking the national trend, many businesses — especially the hotels, restaurants, and bars — were thriving. The gambling dens were also as popular as ever. It was the era of the gangster, as underworld crime figures such as Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky were operating some of the most prosperous gaming and entertainment venues in Saratoga. The likes of Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond were also Saratoga regulars.