By TERESA GENARO, founder of Brooklynbackstretch.com and turf writer for The Saratogian
The 1960s saw tremendous changes to the New York racing landscape; the creation of the New York Racing Association and subsequent renovations of Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack meant that the little track upstate was largely ignored, but when the 1960s hit, attention was turned to the Spa, and the decade saw significant changes and memorable events in Saratoga both on and off the track.
The construction of the Adirondack Northway began, linking New York’s populous downstate areas with the Capital Region; the stretch linking Albany to Lake George was completed in 1966, enabling Red Smith to famously say that the way to get to Saratoga was to take the Northway to Exit 14, turn left at Union Avenue, and go back 100 years.
Taking nothing away from Smith’s fanciful description, the track of the 1960s might have been something of a shock to a visitor from an earlier era. The field stand and betting ring at the top of the stretch were removed to make way for a grandstand extension that nearly doubled the original’s seating capacity. The venerable saddling shed behind the clubhouse was modified to house offices and pari-mutuel machines. The spacious expanse of the yard was filled in with televisions, picnic benches, and other small structures.
As the new decade dawned, so did a run of domination in thoroughbred racing never to be duplicated, as Kelso was voted Horse of the Year from 1960-1964. He won at Saratoga in four of those years, including victories in the 1963 and 1965 Whitney Handicaps. In 1967, Kelso came back to Saratoga to jump fences in the infield on National Steeplechase Day.
A 1962 race that some call the best Travers ever made history when Jaipur edged out Ridan by a nose after a head-and-head battle from gate to wire. The filly who finished seventh in that race had made a splash at Saratoga the previous summer, as Cicada won both the Schuylerville and the Spinaway en route to 2-year-old filly honors.
The 1966 Horse of the Year, Buckpasser, won the Travers a year after winning the Hopeful and being voted 2-year-old champion colt. Horses of the Year Damascus (1967) and Dr. Fager (1968) also made starts at Saratoga, winning the Travers and Whitney, respectively. Damascus’s margin of victory in the Travers was 22 lengths.
Around town, Skidmore began the move from its downtown campus to North Broadway, and in 1963 fundraising began for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. According to Edward Hotaling, the turf community was among those who donated generously, with breeding farms contributing stallion fees. SPAC opened in 1966.
Tompion had won the Travers in 1960, and eight years later his son Chompion followed in his father’s footsteps. The end of the decade was marked by the running of the 100th Travers Stakes. It was won, fittingly, by Arts and Letters, yet another Saratoga winner who would go on to be a champion; he was voted that year’s 3-year-champion and Horse of the year, closing out a decade in which every Horse of the Year raced — and won — at the Spa.