By MIKE KANE, Racing Historian and Contributing Editor for Saratoga Living magazine
Saratoga's return to prominence as one of the most important and appreciated meets in the nation took place in the 1970s.
Several key factors meshed: the Adirondack Northway was completely open from Albany to the Canadian border, making Saratoga even more accessible to fans in the metro areas, Off-Track Betting was up and running, changing racing's landscape, Sunday racing was approved and – most important – the sport was blessed with a series of breakthrough performers.
The attendance and handle figures grew dramatically, from the daily averages of 18,234 in attendance and $1,449,519 in handle in 1970, to the averages in 1979 of 21,858 and $2,473,099. During the decade, attendance climbed 19.87 percent and handle soared 70.62 percent. The increases upstate contrasted with the declines during the same period at the downstate tracks, Belmont and Aqueduct, where the arrival of OTB took a toll.
Star after star after star raced at Saratoga during what turned into a golden decade for the sport. Topping the long list of luminaries was Secretariat, who was on his way to the Horse of the Year Award as a 2-year-old in 1972. He returned the following summer as the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, drew crowds for his morning workouts and was upset by Onion in the Whitney. The Secretariat Whitney drew a track record crowd of 30,119 that watched the Allen Jerkens-trained Onion stun Secretariat, who went off a 1-10 in the wagering.
There were plenty of other standouts, equine and human:
- The great filly Ruffian, who ran her career record to 5-0 with a 12¾-length victory in the 1974 Spinaway, the day before Foolish Pleasure added to his Hall of Fame resume with a victory in a division of the Hopeful. The two met in the fateful match race at Belmont Park the following July.
- Meadow Stable's Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge won two of his three of his starts at the Spa for trainer Lucien Lauren. The loss on August 1, 1973 to 56-1 long shot Wichita Oil came four days before Onion beat his stablemate Secretariat.
- Forego, one of racing's all-time greats, lost both of his races at Saratoga. Carrying 136 pounds through the mud in the 1977 Whitney, he finished last of seven. The winner, Nearly on Time, was assigned 103 pounds.
- Chris Evert and Susan's Girl were winless in their Saratoga appearances, but Paul Mellon's Key to the Mint was perfect, completing the Whitney-Travers double in 1972.
- In 1976, jockey Angel Codero Jr. began his remarkable march into Saratoga history with the first of 11 consecutive riding titles. He closed the decade with his fourth title in 1979, despite missing seven days with a suspension.
- Though still in his 40s, Jerkens, cemented his reputation as one of history's great trainers by winning three consecutive Saratoga titles outright and sharing a fourth. He led the way in 1972 with 19 winners during a 24-day meet. Laz Barrera matched Jerkens with three titles and a tie for a fourth.
- Affirmed and Alydar were two of the brightest stars of the decade. They gave a preview of what lay ahead in the 1977 Hopeful, which Affirmed won by a half-length. After Affirmed edged Alydar in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown in 1978, the stage was set for a rematch in the Travers. Affirmed tuned up with a win in the Jim Dandy, Alydar beat older horses in the Whitney and then was awarded a controversial victory in the Travers in front of a record crowd of 50,359 when Affirmed was disqualified.
New York's experiment with Sunday racing included four days in 1975 at the Spa. There was no Sunday racing in Saratoga the next three summers, but it returned for good in 1979.
By the end of the final season of the 1970s, a total of 58 of the decade's champions had competed at Saratoga, there was talk of expansion in the air and America's oldest track was a summer powerhouse again.