I can imagine John Morrissey tugging his beard with excitement at the new way to fleece the public: bringing the ancient Middle Eastern sport of horse racing to little Saratoga Springs.
The indefatigable gambling promoter had a vision when he co-founded Saratoga Race Course, all right — but I doubt he could see down the road to a world of first-class thoroughbreds, Thai and Indian restaurants competing with bars and steakhouses in the evening, and sharp-edged state regulation of all on-track activities.
This is the 150th anniversary year of Saratoga Race Course, and it will be an interesting one for several reasons.
A community-wide effort called Saratoga 150 is looking back nostalgically at the great horses and matchups since the Union Avenue track was founded by “Old Smoke” Morrissey and friends in 1863. At the same time, the push for legalized casino gambling in the state raises lots of questions — good ones — about the viability of the track and the future of horse racing.
It wasn’t that long ago you had to find your way to the Nevada desert to get fast action, but we now live in a world where casinos are proliferating faster than mud-pond tadpoles. If state voters pass a constitutional amendment to legalize casinos, Saratoga County and city officials are united in thinking the city should have one of them.
But they want the track protected. County supervisors and the City Council have endorsed legislation that would guarantee part of any casino proceeds go to breeders and others in the racing industry, and to increasing purses paid in thoroughbred races at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.
“As a competing product for the entertainment dollar, casinos do trump the horse-racing product,” acknowledged Supervisor Matthew Veitch, R-Saratoga Springs, chairman of the county’s Racing Committee. “The racing product needs to have support to be viable in that kind of world.”
County and city leaders have met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s racing adviser, Bennett Liebman, but Cuomo has so far been tight-lipped on where he thinks casinos should go, other than saying the first ones should be upstate.
Saratoga at least has tradition and experience on its side; illegal gambling was an open secret for decades, and the electronic slot machines at Saratoga Casino and Raceway have been a success. The race course itself has offered world-class racing entertainment in a safe and stable environment.
The Saratoga 150 Committee, which began planning a year ago, has a $200,000 balance, and has made plans for several big celebrations of the anniversary, A kickoff public party will take place May 24 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Later, legendary socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, will sponsor a floral fete and ice cream social Aug. 2, with a parade along Broadway and Stewart’s Shops frozen confections in Congress Park.
There’s a WMHT documentary in the works, a tribute to the best horses ever to race here, and maybe a reunion of the track’s famous living alumni at the end of the meet. A “$2 Bettor’s Ball” is slated for Aug. 17 at the City Center.
People can also sign up through the Saratoga 150 website for a chance to bet $15,000 of Marylou and John’s money on a single winning wager in each of the summer meet’s five biggest stakes races. That’s a chance to place a single win bet for as much money as a minimum-wage earner makes in a year.
You might have better chances if you could spread the money across the field, but even if you pick the favorite (what fun is that?) and win, it will have enough payout that you’ll be picking it up at the IRS window. And you’ll be buying dinner that night, too.
“We’re having a lot of fun. We’re going to have a great summer, and hopefully draw a lot of people,” said Charles Wait, president of the Adirondack Trust Co. and a member of the celebration committee.
Drawing people won’t be a problem. It seems to be less of a problem downtown every year. As soon as the weather warms up, the sidewalks will be full.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.