When racing fans line up at the rail or sit in the grandstand to watch the Travers Stakes on Saturday, they'll be participating in a tradition that dates from the Civil War, a time when people relied on horses for transportation and not just for sport.
The Travers is the oldest major feature in all of American spectator sports, having its first running on Aug. 2, 1864, the first day — and the first race — of Saratoga's second meet.
Its $2,500 initial purse is one major difference in a race and a track that have kept true to their roots. In today's dollars, that's about $35,000. But the Travers purse is $1 million, elevating it to a level alongside other premier races in the country.
The Travers has nearly always been a big deal.
"It's the oldest major stakes race for 3-year-olds in the country," said Dan Silver, spokesman for the New York Racing Association. "Obviously, there's going to be a lot of prestige that goes along with winning it."
The Travers' purse was highest in the late 1980s, when it reached more than $1 million, higher than the Kentucky Derby was then, author Edward Hotaling wrote in his 1995 book, "They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga."
Named for stockbroker
If William R. Travers lived today, the race's namesake might be a TV personality.
The first president of the Saratoga Association was a stockbroker from Baltimore who famously used his stutter for effect along with his dry humor, Hotaling wrote.
"He turned his stutter into shtick and became one of the most quoted wits of his time."
Travers also owned the colt Kentucky, winner of the inaugural Travers.
It's still true that the well-known jockeys, trainers and owners often win that race, said Brien Bouyea, spokesman for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
"It's still the big names in the sport [that] are coming here for this," he said.
But the favorite wins the race less than half the time. Historically since 1901, the favorite won the Travers 43.5 percent of the time, according to the New York Racing Association.
The last few years have seen relatively unknown horses run in and win the event, rather than high-profile match-ups from horses that met earlier in the Triple Crown races.
This year, the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes are all retired and won't be making an appearance.
"There are certainly years where the 'name' horses are here and there are years where they are not," Bouyea said.
While sometimes the 3-year-old spring standouts retire early, other years they come into their own later in the season, winning the Travers and then making an even bigger name for themselves.
"It makes stars out of a lot of these horses when they do win it," Bouyea said.
The Travers Stakes was canceled for six seasons, according to the New York Racing Association's written history of the race — in 1896 and 1898-1900, when Saratoga Race Course changed hands to a syndicate owned by William Whitney; and in 1911 and 1912, when all tracks closed because of prohibitions on gambling.
Other than that, it has been run at various distances before organizers settled on the current distance of a mile and a quarter in 1904.
People still casually refer to the race as the Mid-Summer Derby, and the Travers Mid-Summer Derby was the race's official name in the late 1920s and early '30s and again in the 1980s, Hotaling wrote.
The Travers delivers a show off the track as well — in the grandstand, clubhouse and back yard, where people sport fancy dresses and suits.
"It's a chance for our fans to really put on their best outfit, their best hat," Silver said.
And while race patrons doubtless dressed in their best for even the earliest Travers races, other traditions are newer.
Painting the Travers canoe in the color of the winning horse's connections is a tradition born in 1961. The canoe sits in the pond in the infield.
The NYRA facilities team paints the canoe, Silver said.
"It stays that color for an entire year."
The jockey statue near the paddock is painted right after the race in the colors worn by the winning horse.
NYRA is starting new events that are becoming tradition associated with the race, as the racing association builds up a whole week of activities around the Travers to attract visitors and fans.
The Travers Celebration the Thursday night before the race supports charities and is held at the track, featuring fancy food and a live auction. The gala is in its 12th year, Silver said.
A newer celebration is the third annual Travers Eve party held on Broadway tonight with live music and jockey autograph sessions.
It's "just another way to create excitement and create a festival atmosphere for the entire weekend," Silver said.
Reach Gazette reporter Tatiana Zarnowski at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.