Categories: Schenectady County
Saratoga Race Course will celebrate its 140th anniversary today and Sunday with special events, giveaways and historical displays.
The first thoroughbred horse racing meet in Saratoga Springs was held in early August 1863 while the Civil War raged in the southern states.
“Saratoga’s Broadway was a canyon flanked by magnificent elms and gargantuan hotels and jammed with men in expensive black broadcloth and women in the finest fashions,” writes city native and author Edward Hotaling in his book, “They’re Off: Horse Racing at Saratoga (1995),” about Saratoga in 1863.
Prizefighter-turned-businessman John Morrissey launched the first four-day racing meet at what is now called Horse Haven, across Union Avenue from the main track, Hotaling said. There were no grandstands and the crowd watched from their carriages.
The race course, where racing is currently held, wasn’t constructed and used until 1864.
The reason this year’s anniversary isn’t the 145th anniversary of racing is because there were five years when racing didn’t occur in Saratoga Springs, according to Mike Kane, communications director at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Union Avenue.
“It’s 140 years of racing and 145 years from when they started racing,” Kane said.
He said there was no racing at Saratoga from 1943 through 1945 during World War II. The racing stayed at Belmont Park those summers. There was another two-year break in Saratoga racing in the early 1900s when a short-lived reform law forbid gambling on horse racing.
Today’s look back on racing and traditions at the country’s oldest race track still in operation will start with breakfast.
Breakfast at the track
Instead of just eggs and toast, this morning’s breakfast at the track, starting at 7 a.m., will feature steak, fried chicken, corn bread and other features of a breakfast served in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Visitors can enjoy breakfast while they watch the horses go through their morning workouts on the main track.
“In the early 1900s many breakfast guests would arrive in evening attire after a night of gaming at Canfield’s Casino,” noted the New York Racing Association.
These weary fellows would dine on frog’s legs, melon and ample amounts of champagne.
“Whenever a gentleman failed to survive the combination [and fell asleep], the head waiter would simply put a screen around him,” according to NYRA.
When the track’s gates open at 10:30 a.m. today, the first 5,000 fans will receive a commemorative, vintage Coca-Cola bottle. The 8.5-ounce collectible bottle features a 1906 “Diamond” Coca-Cola label.
Stewart’s Shops will be offering free samples of its new Finish Line ice cream starting at 2 p.m.
The Victorian Social Club and the Saratoga Springs History Museum will provide a glimpse of Victorian fashion as members of the club greet racing fans in authentic period costumes of the late 19th century.
The local history museum will provide a mannequin display showing a variety of outfits dating from the 1860s through the 1870s. These outfits are what people wore to the race course during its earliest days.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will offer an exhibit in the track backyard area, near the Big Red Spring, featuring a timeline and photo display of racing through the ages.
Kane said the museum’s historian, Allan Carter, will also provide his “top 10” list of thoroughbred horses.
Impressions of Saratoga will display an extensive collection of vintage racing memorabilia and souvenirs as well as offer racing fans free appraisals of their track memorabilia.
Artist Greg Montgomery and author Victor Zast will autograph copies of their illustrated book: “The History and Art of 25 Travers,” a book celebrating the country’s oldest stakes race. The book signing will be from 1 to 3 p.m. along the Paddock fence.
The U.S. Postal Service will also be commemorating the 140th year of racing at Saratoga with a “Tradition Turns 140” postal cancellation at the track’s post office.
Gentlemen’s Day activities will take place today and Sunday near the jockey silks room. These activities include hand-rolled cigars, fine shaving product displays, men’s watches and other displays.