In 1867, the six-day summer meeting at Saratoga Race Course began on Aug. 7. The New York Times offered a glowing preview, praising the beauty of the women in attendance, the “unclouded brilliancy” of the sun, and the condition of the racing surface. That fourth season of racing in Saratoga, The Times claimed, “promises to be the most successful racing carnival ever held here.”
Those words must have been music to the ears of William R. Travers, whose eponymous race was carded as the first of two races (the second race comprised three two-mile heats). The president of the Saratoga Association, the organization that oversaw the track, Travers also served as a placing judge on that August day 155 years ago.
Saratoga Race Course would likely not exist without Travers. After the success of the 1863 meeting, held on the site of what is now the Oklahoma training facility and initiated by John Morrissey, Travers was one of the four men (Morrissey, Leonard Jerome, and John Hunter) who purchased the land on which the track now sits, built the facility, and formed the Saratoga Association, which remained in place until the management of New York’s Thoroughbred tracks consolidated in 1955.
Originally from Baltimore, Travers was the son of a successful businessman from a notable family. His own path to success was a fairly circuitous one: he briefly attended West Point, then attended Columbia College. He began and aborted several businesses, living in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. Reduced at one point to financial ruin, Travers is said to have repaid all of his debts, along with those of business partners.
A sporting enthusiast, Travers raced yachts and was integral to the development and success of the New York Racquet Club and the New-York Athletic Club. He owned racehorses, too, on his own and with partners Hunter and Jerome, and while a relationship between Morrissey, a former bare-knuckle fighter who owned gambling houses in New York City and Saratoga, and Travers, a member of the New York elite, might seem far-fetched, their complementary lives are what gave us Saratoga Race Course.
While wealthy, Morrissey lacked Travers’ fine reputation, the reputation that would attract people to the track; the savvy Morrissey knew that making Travers the face of Saratoga racing would give his endeavor the patina of respectability that it needed to thrive.
The 1864 meeting, the first on the present site, was greeted effusively by the Times’ writer, who assessed the new facility as “so thoroughly respectful that we may justly quote the now progressing Saratoga meeting as a model institution.”
The first race of that second season was the Travers Stakes, and it was won by a horse named Kentucky. Contemporary accounts list John Hunter, Travers’ partner, as the owner; later reports note that Travers himself was a partner in the horse that won the first race, conveniently named for him, at his new racetrack.
Travers got out of the horse-owning business the following year, but he continued to lead the Saratoga Association, and he later became one of the investors in the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn.
He was known for his sense of humor, his knack for storytelling, and his stammer, a trifecta that results in an 1885 Times article devoted to his skills as a raconteur and his wit. One might now cringe at the emphasis on his speech patterns, which detailed his articulation difficulties.
Travers died in Bermuda in March 1887. He had gone to the island the previous November, on the advice of doctors who thought that a milder climate would be more salubrious for his diabetes than New York. His old friend Leonard Jerome went to Bermuda to accompany Travers’ body and his family home. Funeral services were held at Trinity Church on W. 25th St. in Manhattan, and Travers was buried in Newport, Rhode Island
His obituary claimed that “No man in New-York was personally more popular than Mr. Travers,” and it lauded his generosity and mentorship. He had “much to do” with the success of Saratoga Race Course, it noted.
More than a century later, with the race and the day named for him having become the hallmark of racing at this premier meet, that’s an understatement.