Saratoga is not as powerful a factor in the counting house department of racing as the great, prosperous metropolitan tracks, but its contribution—though less tangible—is important. It is the oldest functioning race track in the country. It has the patina of tradition, the memories of great horses, great sportsmen, great jockeys and great races for nearly a century. Saratoga embodies the history of American racing in a setting of placid beauty, a green valley some 190 miles north of New York City. This nostalgic charm, this reminder of pleasant yesterdays, still seems to count, even in this raucous age. Certainly the gentlemen who founded the National Museum of Racing thought so when they chose Saratoga as the logical location for Racing's Hall of Fame. Its handsome new home, just outside the track, was dedicated a year ago by Governor Harriman.
Racing began at the present running track at Saratoga in the summer of 1864. General Grant was not present at the opening on account of pressing business elsewhere but he got to Saratoga in 1865. The moving spirit in the new track was John Morrissey, a gambler, ex-Congressman and ex-heavyweight fighter who built the casino later to become famous as Canfield's. The first president of the Saratoga Association was William R. Travers, a New York sportsman for whom the Travers, the oldest stake race in the U.S., was named, and among the directors was Leonard Jerome, grandfather of a currently famous English horse owner and painter named Churchill.
Though the Saratoga track is 92 summers old, it has not seen 92 racing seasons. Anti-racing laws enacted in 1910 resulted in the closing of the Saratoga track in 1911 and 1912. Gasoline rationing shut it again from 1943 through 1945. Three years ago it passed, with commendable fortitude, through an investigation which, at a cost of a half million dollars, abolished sin at the spa, or re-abolished it. Whenever spasms of virtue seize the body politic, Saratoga is investigated.
Eight years hence, Deo volente, the centenary of the Saratoga track will offer opportunity for a gay and vivid historical pageant, with an all-star cast of characters, two-footed and four-footed. If such a pageant is held, it ought surely to include an episode about the maddest and most uproarious day the Saratoga track ever saw, Aug. 16, 1930, when a chestnut colt named Jim Dandy won the Travers at 100 to one. He was an outsider running against two aristocrats, Gallant Fox and Whichone. He seemed born to blush unseen that day and the odds of 100 to one on him seemed justified. But Gallant Fox and Whichone paid too much attention to each other and not enough to the tortoise, Dandy, and so the tortoise won, by six lengths. Pandemonium, as they say, reigned. It was estimated that the late Sam Rosoff, the "subway king," a jovial one-man mob of no mean decibel power, contributed at least 40% of the pandemonium, for he had bet a packet on Jim Dandy. There will be talk of that Travers and of Jim Dandy as long as people who like horses can talk.
In the centennial observance, there must also be commemoration of the sad day at Saratoga when Man o' War, fondly known as Big Red, suffered the only defeat of his magnificent career. It was Aug. 13, 1919 in the Sanford Memorial, and Big Red lost the race by half a length to a colt ironically named Upset. Ten days after Upset upset Big Red, Big Red upset Upset in the Grand Union Hotel Stake, and he did the same on other occasions, including the Travers of 1920. This three-horse running of the Travers is memorialized by a mural in the grill of the New Worden Hotel in Saratoga, showing Big Red, Upset and John P. Grier finishing in that order. Saratoga had an affectionate interest in Man o' War because it was there, as a yearling in 1918, he started his fabulous professional career when he was sold to Samuel D. Riddle for $5,000.
We might as well put some history-book history in the 1964 Saratoga gala with a float commemorating Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, a British sportsman who had an accident at Saratoga not dissimilar to what overtook Man o' War in that Sanford Memorial. In October of 1777 General Burgoyne finished second to the Americans in a decisive battle that gave George III quite a jolt. The daily double player at the spa ought to pause occasionally in his frenzied quest for the bluebird of happiness and reflect that his country got a mighty shove toward its independence at a spot about 13 miles east of the tote board, when Burgoyne surrendered to the American General Gates 179 years ago come this October.
So many colorful things have happened over the years at Saratoga that a pageant director would have a hard time choosing which to feature. Maybe there should be a re-enactment of the day when Evander Berry Wall, premier dude of his time, made good his boast that he could change his attire 40 times in one day. Interest in the marathon was tremendous. The clotheshorse supplanted the running horse for the day and bets in abundance were made on the outcome. Excitement grew as Mr. Wall appeared on the veranda of the United States Hotel in each new costume, modeled it for a few moments and then dashed upstairs to the waiting arms of his valet, to don the next set of duds. At the close of a sunset that made the western heavens look almost as gorgeous as Diamond Jim Brady dressed for the races, Mr. Wall tottered into the lobby in his 40th costume, his evening clothes. It was a driving finish. Thousands cheered. Civ, which had tottered, was saved. A band played Hail the Conquering Hero Comes, and those who had lacked faith in Mr. Wall—and his Jeeves—paid off.
Times have changed. These days nobody shifts costume 40 times a day at Saratoga, or anywhere else. Since the advent of pari-mutuels informality prevails, or one might even say, rages; but the officials of the Saratoga track have made one last sartorial stand: they insist that men wear coats in the clubhouse. And, of course, the ancient, austere rule still prevails that kiddies are not allowed at the races except when, as Dr. Red Smith points out, they are riding the racehorses.
In our pageant there ought to be a re-enactment of the historic night at Canfield's when John W. (Bet-A-Million) Gates, a barbed-wire tycoon not to be confused with the Gates to whom General Burgoyne surrendered, lost $150,000 at faro and then won it back and $150,000 more with it. But earlier in the day Gates had lost $400,000 (the $2 bettor recording this story relishes flinging around these round numbers) to the bookies, so when rosyfingered dawn appeared in the east, over what is now Skidmore College, and Gates tipped the haggard faro dealers and called it a day, he was still a quarter of a million bucks shy on the 24 hours. But what was a quarter of a million to a barbed-wire tycoon in the Gay Nineties? The income tax amendment did not go into effect until 1913.
Recent years have seen changes at Saratoga. The Grand Union, last of the great hotels that for more than a century helped give the town its unique, leisurely, spacious air, was razed four years ago. The United States Hotel had walked the plank a decade earlier. Those two vast inns were probably the largest antiques in the country and they had become anachronisms. Their doom was sealed years back when the automobile started Americans rolling and vacationers no longer cared to anchor at one hotel or one resort all summer. (It was the necessity to pack enough clothes for a three-month stay that had brought into being that enormous travel accessory of the crinoline era, the Saratoga trunk.)