Saratoga Rich in History

The more people I come in contact with the more I discover how many are not aware of the history of Saratoga. They love the ambiance, the beauty, and the overall feeling they get being there and can perhaps sense a small portion of the track’s and the city’s history. But few know the sheer depth of it.

So, for those who are planning on visiting the Spa this year, here is a history lesson to help you fully appreciate the hallowed grounds on which you will tread.

Go back to the days of “Gone With the Wind;” Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara kissing against the fiery backdrop of Atlanta burning. The summer before, one of the fiercest battles in the history of this country was fought in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

A month after the historic and bloody battle that would help decide the outcome of the Civil War, in Upstate New York, the first Thoroughbred race was run in the small town of Saratoga.

More than 150 years later, the annual rite of summer continues and is as widely anticipated as ever. Each year, the mass exodus of horses and humans from New York City and other racetracks to Saratoga coincides with the convergence of vacationers, gamblers, and celebrities, who journey into the Adirondacks for the sport, the recreation, and Saratoga’s spas and mineral water. Although the days of the Runyonesque characters and the great hotels are gone, the spirit of Saratoga still prevails, despite the town’s rapid growth and modernization.

A hundred years before there was a racetrack, Saratoga had already established its niche in history. Sir William Johnson, while serving as Colonial Commissary of New York for Indian Affairs, was led to the land of the magical waters by the Indians. It was his wife, Molly Brant, sister of the famous Mohawk chieftain, Joseph Brant, who brought him to the Spa for his gout, and Saratoga’s therapeutic spring water was tasted for the first time by a white man.

Some 10 years later, in 1777, the area around Saratoga was the scene of the turning point of the Revolutionary War, as British General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Horatio Gates after suffering a crushing defeat at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, now known as the Battle of Saratoga. This prevented Burgoyne’s army from hooking up with General Howe in Philadelphia and served as the catalyst for France to enter the war.

In 1789, the town of Saratoga, as we know it, was founded by Gideon Putnam, a cousin of Major General Israel Putnam, hero of Bunker Hill. By 1803, Putnam had built a hotel and tavern and had excavated and tubed the Congress, Washington, Columbian, and Hamilton mineral springs. He then began construction of Saratoga’s first grand hotel, Congress Hall, although Putnam died before the hotel’s completion in 1812.

Soon after, other magnificent hotels sprung up, including the Grand Union (the world’s largest hotel at the time), the United States, and the Columbian. They were massive structures that took up entire city blocks and lured many of America’s financial giants and celebrities. Activities during those years consisted mainly of carriage rides to Saratoga Lake, concerts, and ballroom dancing, and, of course, the sampling of the mineral waters.

Then, in 1861, one of the most colorful characters in American history, John Morrissey, came to Saratoga and kindled the spark that still burns brightly and turned the town into what it is today.

Born in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1831, Morrissey grew up in the slums of Troy, New York, and spent most of his adolescence brawling in the streets. During one scrap, his back was severely burned on live coals from an overturned stove. Despite his pain, he got up and pounded his adversary senseless, earning himself the nickname “Old Smoke.”

At the age of 20 he headed for the California Gold Rush, took the money he made from a claim, and opened a gambling hall in San Francisco. As a sideline, he became a bare-knuckle prizefighter and defeated the celebrated “Yankee Sullivan and John Heenan to become the recognized heavyweight boxing champion of America under London Prize Ring Rules.

He then became a bouncer in brothels and saloons, the leader of a New York street gang, and hired himself out as a muscle man for “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall. His association with Tammany Hall eventually led him to the Senate in Albany and later to the United States Congress, where he often bragged that he could lick any man in the House.

Still looking to establish himself socially as well as politically, he ventured to Saratoga Springs, feeling that the Sport of Kings would be an excellent vehicle to obtain social status. He also realized that Saratoga would be the perfect place to utilize his experience and knowledge of gambling halls.

He began by building the Club House in Congress Park, later to be known as Canfield’s Casino. He felt that visitors to the casino would need something to do during the afternoons, so he built a crude racetrack called Horse Haven.

On August 3, 1863, the first Thoroughbred horse race was run in Saratoga. The track could only accommodate 3,000 people, which actually was a large crowd in those days, but it proved so popular there was pure chaos when more than twice that many showed  up, and a riot ensued as thousands attempted to push their way through the gates. It was an extremely hot afternoon and women in their hoop skirts were fainting all over the track. Fortunately, Morrissey had decreed that all women had to be accompanied by a man, so there was always man around to carry the stricken women from the track.

That first meeting lasted only four days, with only two races each afternoon. In its August 15 issue, Wilkes’s Spirit of the Times stated, “The meeting at Saratoga Springs was a great success…It is made manifest that the people of New York will give such support to racing in Saratoga Springs and will add to the zest and flavor of the occasion.”

Because of the pandemonium that erupted at the first meeting, Morrissey set out to build a larger track to accommodate the crowds. He accomplished that the following year with the help of society raconteur William R. Travers, Westchester sportsman John R. Hunter, and Jerome Park Racetrack founder Leonard W. Jerome, the grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill. With his partners, Morrissey purchased 125 acres across the road from the old track and built a larger racetrack on the site of the present Saratoga Race Course.

Among those who frequented the new Saratoga were Henry Clay, August Belmont I, and rail tycoon Commodore Vanderbilt.

Saratoga was now the place to be seen. Women’s wardrobes were so lavish that huge trunks called hogsheads were invented. They later became known as “Saratoga trunks,” and made famous by novelists such as Edna Ferber. The track soon attracted the best horses and most celebrated personalities. Spending the entire month of August at the Grand Union Hotel was former president Ulysses S. Grant.

The Grand Union and United States hotels became longtime bitter rivals, with each one trying to outdo the other.  The Grand Union was the reigning queen of the lavish hotels with its magnificent dining room that seated 1,200 guests. They dined in supreme elegance as stringed orchestras played waltzes during dinner hours.

The United States was rich in history. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette made the hotel his headquarters, and that same year, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, was a guest. In 1828, the hotel hosted the farewell dinner for author James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote “Last of the Mohicans.” Other noted guests were Washington Irving, John Wanamaker, and Chester Arthur, later to be President of the United States, who met his wife while staying at the United States.

Rebuilt after two mysterious fires in 1864 and 1865, the new “Stately States” had 768 rooms and 65 suites, a 212-by-50-foot dining room, a 112-by-52-foot ballroom, and ceilings as high as 26 feet.

With no racing west of the Mississippi River, Saratoga drew a strong East--West rivalry, which in those days meant New York vs. Kentucky. Kentucky hardboots and bluebloods began to check out the New York society stables of Belair, Rancocas, Whitney, Greentree, and Sam Riddle. And the New Yorkers did likewise.

In 1878, John Morrissey died of a stroke at the age of 47, as massive crowds outside the Adelphi Hotel, where he lived, held vigil. Morrissey never got a chance to witness the influx of big-time gamblers to Saratoga, such as “Diamond Jim” Brady, E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, and John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates.

Saratoga was alive during the Gay Nineties – alive and decadent. After gambling all night at the casino, visitors would adjourn for a 6 a.m. breakfast of frogs’ legs and champagne at the track. Screens would be discreetly placed around anyone who collapsed from food or drink.

Diamond Jim Brady would arrive at the Grand Union Hotel with his suite of 27 Japanese houseboys, and actress Lillian Russell was often seen riding a gold-plated bicycle with her name engraved in diamonds, a gift from Brady.

Bet-A-Million Gates once lost $400,000 at the track in a single day. After losing another $150,000 at the casino, he won almost all of it back by morning. One of Gates’ sidekicks was “Old John” Drake. Once during a long train journey, with no cards or dice to keep them busy, they bet $1,000 a shot on which raindrop would roll down the window the fastest. By the time they reached their destination, Gates was out $46,000. Drake said that rainy days were always lucky for him.

And then there was E. Phocian Howard. “Old Phoce,” as he was known, never had much money, but was a fixture at Saratoga. He published a racing paper called the New York Press. Usually he had to beg, borrow or win the money to pay the salaries of his staff. His wardrobe consisted of hundreds of suits, but they were all old and out of style, and he drove around in a 25-year-old Rolls Royce. His chauffeur, valet, cook, spiritual advisor, and constant companion was a black man called “Chicken-Fry Ben.”

Phoce, who once coined the phrase, “All horseplayers die broke,” shared a large room on Union Avenue with Damon Runyon. Although he never had much luck at the track, Old Phoce did win several thousand dollars on a horse one day. After giving hundreds away to local drifters, he went to Smith’s Gambling House. The next morning, Chicken-Fry Ben found Phoce dead in bed. He had exactly two dollars and thirty-seven cents in his pocket. Ben later told Runyon, “Mr. Phoce didn’t quite die broke after all. He had enough for a two-buck bet.”

After Morrissey’s death, his casino went through several hands before being sold to Richard A. Canfield, while controlling interest in the track went to a bookmaker named Gottfried Waldbaum, who owned several outlaw tracks. Attempting to make a quick fortune, as he did with his other tracks, he eliminated all stakes, shrunk purses, and literally destroyed the caliber of racing at Saratoga. Owners of the top stables refused to support the track and Saratoga was on the verge of collapse.

One owner who would not give up on the track was Richard T. Wilson Jr. who contended that Saratoga’s survival depended on the return of prominent sportsmen and an increase in purses. At the turn of the century, a company was formed to purchase control of the track, the racing association, and the grounds. William C. Whitney was made president and had a major role in returning Saratoga to its once revered status by improving the grounds and reviving a good number of the stakes. Jockey Club regulations were enforced, and soon America’s top stables had returned. Whitney became known as “The Savior of Saratoga.”

By 1907, great horses such as Colin and Sysonby had graced Saratoga, followed in 1919 by the shocking defeat of Man o’War in the Sanford Stakes by Upset and the equally shocking victory of 100-1 shot Jim Dandy over Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox and Whichone in the 1930 Travers Stakes. Saratoga soon became known as the “Graveyard of Champions,” which evolved over the years into the “Graveyard of Favorites.” Also taking its place with those two historic upsets was the defeat of Triple Crown winner Secretariat at the hands of an allowance horse named Onion in the 1973 Whitney.

In the 1920’s, a beautification project turned Saratoga Race Course into one of the most attractive racetracks in the country, as magnificent elm trees, flowers, and shrubbery were planted, an infield lake was added, as well as a tree-lined parking lot. In the February 1, 1928 issue of the Saratogian, it read: “They have made the course the most beautiful in the country. While not as large as Belmont, it is more complete and more picturesque.”

But during the Great Depression, purses shrunk dramatically and the purse of the Travers decreased from $33,000 in 1931 to $14,400 in 1938. In 1939, bookmakers were replaced by pari-mutuel machines and people began to wonder if Saratoga could survive. Emergency meetings were held on Long Island for the sole purpose of obtaining revenue.

In 1943, the United States Hotel was taken over by the city of Saratoga for non-payment of taxes totaling $38,000 over three years. Three years later, the great hotel was razed.

Saratoga went through a social and economic decline following World War II. There was no industry, the town had no proper housing, and there no longer was an alternative to racing, as the Kefauver hearings closed down the crap tables and roulette wheels in 1950.

In 1952, the last of the great hotels, the Grand Union, was torn down. Through all this, Saratoga survived and began to prosper with the help of restaurant and shop owners, who kept expanding. Soon, new restaurants and shops opened and Saratoga began to flourish once again.

Broadway, where the great hotels once stood and where visitors would sit on porches and relax during the evening hours, is now a bustling street packed with people at all hours of the day and night, with new condos and restaurants and businesses popping up at a rapid rate, as well as several new hotels in and around Saratoga. The Gideon Putnam Hotel, built in 1935, and nestled away in Saratoga State Park, gives one a taste of old Saratoga elegance, but even that is now called the Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa.

Somehow, the town and the racetrack have managed to maintain its almost mystical image and still possess the power to enchant us. Small motels that have been on Broadway for many years still are there, preserving some link to the not-so-distant past.

The Adelphi Hotel, built in 1877, where John Morrissey died, is currently undergoing a massive $34 million renovation project, in which it will be rebuilt from top to bottom. There will be a new banquet facility, outdoor swimming pool, spa, gardens, and bridal suites. Like the rebuilding of the United States Hotel in the 1860s, the more things change in Saratoga the more they remain the same.

What Saratoga has lost over the years is its grace and grand splendor, and its decadence. Those ostentatious, mischievous early days can never be captured. But through books, photos, and artifacts, we can only imagine the flamboyance of old Saratoga, an era now “gone with the wind.”

Recent Posts


More Blogs