New book chronicles colorful life of John Morrissey

There are ghosts at Saratoga Race Course. And they aren’t getting any sleep this week.
As Saratoga Race Course prepares for its 148th meet, Brien Bouyea has published a book that chronicles the exploits of John Morrissey, the man who started it all in 1863.
As Saratoga Race Course prepares for its 148th meet, Brien Bouyea has published a book that chronicles the exploits of John Morrissey, the man who started it all in 1863.

There are ghosts at Saratoga Race Course.

And they aren’t getting any sleep this week.

The grounds have been crawling with busy construction workers and their equipment, most notably at the clubhouse escalator, which came up lame last year.

A pallet of hams sat in the middle of the clubhouse ground floor on Wednesday morning, waiting for a forklift. (And, eventually, a fork lift.)

Crews of track workers were getting the tour, an orientation in preparation for opening day of the 148th meet on Friday. Stacks of picnic tables waited for their assignment, as did boxes and boxes of flowers.

The last-minute bustle is routine, as Saratoga takes shape once again in a drill that surely must rouse ancient souls at rest.

John Morrissey, though, was already up.

That, thanks to a new book authored by Brien Bouyea, the director of communications at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame just across Union Avenue.

Titled “Bare Knuckles & Saratoga Racing,” Bouyea’s book brings to life the man, nicknamed “Old Smoke,” who’s responsible for this landmark, which endures as the oldest sporting venue in the United States and a widely beloved treasure that still bears enough resemblance to the masterpiece Morrissey conceived in 1864.

The eponymous race honoring Morrissey will be the feature next Thursday. In the meantime, Bouyea will continue his promotional schedule with a book signing from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday in the museum lobby.

It seems fitting that the man whose brainchild was this track represented the entire spectrum of class and fortune you can find in this country, and can find on a daily basis at Saratoga.

Born to dirt-poor immigrants from Ireland, Morrissey brawled his way to a position of respect, both as a national champion boxer and a millionaire gambler who lacked the pedigree of many of his well-heeled friends and enemies, but nevertheless found his place among them and thrived.

Names like Whitney, Vanderbilt and Travers tower over Saratoga, but if you plan to attend the meet, it’s worth taking a moment to thank the man who built it from the ground up. It’s also worth taking the opportunity to read this new biography, because it chronicles a fascinating tale of a quintessentially American life.

“It wasn’t like I had to create a story,” Bouyea said. “I don’t think I’d ever be a very good fiction writer, coming up with characters. The material’s all there. And his story is so incredible and so lively that it was just fun to put together and tell his story.

“His journey was remarkable, from poor Irish immigrant, uneducated, to getting into the gang life in New York City and the shoulder-hitting, to fighting and winning a championship, to having a stake in 16 casinos, to coming up to Saratoga and establishing what is, 150-plus years later, still here and still thriving.”

Bouyea was first exposed to Morrissey as a reporter for The Record in Troy, which also happens to be where Morrissey was raised after his family traveled from Templemore, Tipperary County, Ireland, seeking a better life.

“I wasn’t covering the track regularly, but they were sending me up every now and then to do some color pieces,” Bouyea said. “And I was stumbling through the media guide one night, and see all this stuff on William Travers and some other people, then I see a blurb, ‘. . . and the whole thing was started by John Morrissey from Troy.’ So I said, ‘What the hell’s that all about?’ ”

Morrissey’s life unfolded for the author in fits and starts, a feature here, an article there.

Other writers had introduced Morrissey within a larger context, as Edward Houghtaling did in his book “They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga,” for example. No one had attempted to put all the pieces together and make Morrissey the central figure.

Over time, at The Record and The Saratogian, Bouyea had all the pieces. He just needed to put them together.

“It pretty much wrote itself,” he said. “The biggest challenge wasn’t writing about 150 pages, the big challenge was not writing a 400-page book.

“And I wanted the story to move along. The two biggest focuses are the boxing and the racing. I think I tell what needs to be said on the politics, but I wanted the focus to be on what he’s best known for. He’s in the Boxing Hall of Fame out in Canastota, and, obviously, his legacy is here.”

As Bouyea wrote about Morrissey, “While there was a faction of society that would not accept Morrissey because of his history of detaching people’s eyes in street fights, there was no such issue with the men he brought in to share his Saratoga playground with.”

Besides the racing meet itself, which began in 1863 a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, and the track that opened in 1864, Morrissey is responsible for the building that is now called the Canfield Casino, a swanky gambling house that now is home to the Saratoga Springs History Museum in Congress Park. He died at the age of 47 of respiratory illness at the Adelphi Hotel, and is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Troy.

“Bare Knuckles & Saratoga Racing” is a vivid portrayal of a man who served in the U.S. House of Representative and the state senate despite the fact that he didn’t learn to read and write until he was 19.

Barroom brawler, champion boxer, a scourge to those who opposed him during the bloody Gangs of New York era, enemy of the relentlessly corrupt Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall, Morrissey packed a lot of life into those 47 years.

On Friday, Saratoga will officially spring to life, again, and reflect the best part of an old ghost.

Categories: Sports

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