Saratoga Horse Racing

Saratoga150: Party on, Hunter, Travers and Morrissey...Party on, World.

Saratoga150 Logo.jpgTime-travel with me, if you will:  it's July of 1863, and the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania, USA)--the bloodiest battle in American history--has just taken place.  Mass casualties on both sides.  The country was hurting--neither the North nor the South was gloating after the enormous loss of life.  Uncommon valor and sheer guts were the only things that kept some men alive in the days following, as litters of broken bodies, housing broken souls, were carried off the battlefield.

The emotions of the nation were crushed, as brother fought against brother--many families were divided, and there was no end in sight to the War Between the States.

Gather up your hoop skirts now, board the cart and come with me just one month later, to Saratoga Springs, New York.  The city that was founded on spring waters with curative properties was just about to embark on a venture that would eclipse the springs, as a new distraction would be offered to The People...
Imagine the sweltering heat of August 1863:  whether you were in New York, Boston or Philadelphia--those hoop skirts, stifling corsets and gentlemen's topcoats were a recipe for swooning--that is, passing out from heat exhaustion, and the inability to breathe.

Surely, the Adirondacks of New York--the pristine, green mountains, lakes and rivers--must offer a respite from the radiating heat coming off the sidewalks in your city.  However you got there--the thought of all that green, cool air and interesting people made the long trip worthwhile.

Now, I have no idea how the notion came about, that Saratoga Springs should become the site of American's first formal racecourse (specifically created to race horses).  I don't know what transpired in the minds and conversations of the men who started the whole glorious thing, but I'm grateful that it did.

But here's how it played out, in the fantasyland between my ears:  It's August of 1863, just one month after Gettysburg's morale-destroying bloodfest.  That damned war is raging, but up here in Saratoga, well, it's possible to forget, at least for a while.  

John Hunter and William R. Travers are hanging out, smoking stogies and "taking the waters," as it were, with their water-drinkin' buddy, John Morrissey.  (Spike that mineral water with some good ole' Kentucky bourbon--war or no war, this is Bourbon.)  

So the three fellows are running out of entertainments, and waiting for their respective wives to show up for the evening supper on the enormous verandah of the Grand Union Hotel on Broadway.  

Travers turns to Hunter, and says simply,

"My horse can beat your horse."

Hunter, one eyebrow raised, removes his cigar from his lips, almost laughing at the thought of Travers' horse having the ability to best his prized steed:

"Wanna bet?"
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And...BOOM!  Like the Big Bang at Moment One, from this one conversation, and the need for two friends who had everything--but craved the thrill that comes from whipping the tar out of your best friend--grew the oldest and most-respected sporting venue of any kind in the United States, and therefore, the oldest racetrack in America.

Now, granted, this brief dialogue is my take on the Founding Moment--but I can't imagine that the beginning of the whole shebang could have come about any other way.  A simple challenge,man-to-man, that altered the course of history, and for the good.

Some of the greatest enterprises in human history were born because of boredom, and the need to find a thrill that was not-yet known.

Hunter would go on to become the first Chairman of the Jockey Club,and Travers--well, he would be honoured with a race named for him, the oldest Grade 1 stakes race in America, at the track he founded.

However it played out, in 1863, in the middle of a horrible war, America was a land of broken hearts and shredded dreams.  In 1863, Hunter and Travers gave their countrymen something--not just a distraction, a whimsical experience--they gave the people Hope.  It may have sounded frivolous at the time, even to some of their companions--it may sound frivolous to you even now.

But it was not frivolous, in fact, it was essential.  We have a contemporary analogy, in fact:  Iraq. Even as I write this, Iraq is beset with strife.  The country is torn in a million directions, with a government that's trying to give the people what they need to grow and prosper, again, as a nation.  The Republic of Iraq has been torn by war for far-too-long.

And in the middle of all this strife--the Baghdad Equestrian Club continues to race horses.   The BBC, NPR and USA Today all have done stories on the track, and the miracle that--in the middle of a literal and figurative warzone--the races go on.  People love their horses:  the races give them joy and hope--and for a few minutes, at least--life seems to be normal for the patrons, owners, breeders and administrators who keep this lively tradition going.  The Arabian horse, the 5,000-year-old breed that accompanied every Arab, every Iraqi, through five millennia of life, love, war and peace--continues, to this day, to offer comfort and joy to the women and men who breed, love and race them.

So horse racing and war are two concepts,the paths of which have crossed many times over the centuries.  And every time--it's the horses, and the racing, that keep the people going in a way that no USO show could do.

"There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man," said the venerable Winston Churchill--and he knew the power of that Truth.  He knew war, he knew horses, and he knew that horses may be the best soul-builder--whether the horse took you into battle, or brought your spirit out of it.

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And so it was in 1863...and is, today.  And on August 3, 2013, Saratoga Springs will celebrate with NYRA--the New York Racing Association--the wonderful wisdom that was exercised by those men, one month after Gettysburg.  Saratoga Race Course--and thereby, racing in America--will be 150 years old on that golden day.  A sesquicentennial is cause for major celebration: the fact that this historic party will take place in one of the loveliest cities on God's green Earth--that just adds to the allure of the months-long party that's being planned by the Saratoga150 Committee.

The Saratoga150 Committee is comprised of some of Saratoga's--and racing's--most industrious and hard-working people.  This Committee is not a "name-only" group, folks who want the glory but none of the work:  au contraire, mon frere.  At a recent Committee meeting--to which the public was invited, and at which many Saratoga-region organizations were represented--the Committee came packin' packets of information, applications, calendars and guildelines for everyone who may wish to become part of the big, five-month-long party in 2013.

Charles Wait, President of the Adirondack Trust Company; Maureen Lewi of Lewi and Associates and Joe Dalton, former President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce (now, JD Consulting)--led the meeting.  NYRA was wonderfully represented by Joanne Adams, as were every major racing and Saratoga city and county NGO.

Everyone in attendance reported that the air was electric with excitement--and anticipation.  (Funny,that word, "electric," keeps popping up.)  From the bantering of the Committee members to their gracious acknowledgement of those of us who braved an October snowstorm to attend--the dialogue was sharp, crisp and intelligent.  The Committee members were generous: they opened this meeting to the public precisely so that as many as wish to participate--can. This is not a secret society of socialites, but rather community and racing leaders who want to share the joy of celebration with their neighbors.

The names on the Saratoga150 Committee are illustrious, but that's not the point, or the Big Deal here.  The Big Deal is that these people--hard workers, all, who built businesses, racing stables and the city of Saratoga Springs, itself--are taking a year-and-a-half of their lives to create the greatest birthday party in the history of horse racing.

We who know and love Saratoga Race Course believe that it's the most beautiful race track in the world.   Saratoga150 will be our opportunity to participate as we feel called, and to welcome the world to our gracious, graceful playhouse.  So much history has taken place here:  the world's greatest Thoroughbreds;  the best jockeys; most accomplished trainers and owners--all have come here, for a century-and-a-half, because this place...ah, this surreally-beautiful place...represents The Best in American and world horse racing.  Almost from the moment of its inception, Saratoga Race Course has hosted the highest-standard of racing in the world--and it's just getting better.

Every year, Opening Day is electric.  The moment that Sam the Bugler plays Call to the Post for the first race on the first day of every meet--you can feel the excitement, bouncing off the hair on your arms.  Sam plays, the crowd screams and the horses begin their war dances onto the track--and into the history books.  

But,oh, just wait:  Call to the Post played on the first race on the first day of the year that celebrates 150 years of the races--our races--will be like no other moment in racing history.  Hearts will soar, as high as the rainbows that occasionally land right on the track.

No, Sam won't play those first notes on the exact 150th anniversary of the founding of the track--but it won't matter.  He'll play his first post call a couple of weeks shy of August 3rd--but no one will notice, for this First Call will be the one that kicks off the best racing season, ever.  The Saratoga150 Committee will have something special brewing for August 3--the exact date that our track was founded.  But during the weeks and months just prior, the committee will lead us in a series of parties and celebrations such as Saratoga never has seen before.  I am confident that the Committee will strive to welcome everyone who legitimately wants to help celebrate the founding of America's oldest and most prestigious race meet.

Saratoga150 is a party.  It's a concept.  It's a Committee of people whom I admire--and it's the  chance for the world to pay a visit, to meet Saratogians and to feel more welcome here than in their own homes.  If you're not from Saratoga, come in 2013, and stay for the longest, best sesquicentennial celebration, ever.  Savor Saratoga hospitality, and drink in the ambience of this unique place.  Attend the races, and every Saratoga150 event you can.  

Saratoga150 simply is this:  the home of America's oldest race course, the birthplace of American horse racing, a city and race track that welcome you, with arms wide open.

They're in the gate.  Roy, the Head Starter, is waiting for that golden nanosecond when all is calm--then he trips the trigger, and releases the energy as the horses explode from the gate, and into our hearts, once again.  How many times has this scene played out in 150 years?  How often during those years have horses carried human hearts on their backs, and over the finish line to victory?

Come here, and let the horses carry you away, as they've done  for 150 years.  Look back long enough to thank Hunter, Travers--and yes, Morrissey--then move forward with us, as we work together to assure that the next 150 years of racing does justice and honour to those whose vision, insight and inspiration changed American sports forever...on that blistering August day, so long ago.

Photo credits:  

Saratoga150 logo:  Thanks to Saratoga150 Committee
Saratoga Race Course Clubhouse photo and Saratoga Logo:  Thanks to NYRA/Adam Coglianese

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M.E. Altieri

Marion Altieri is a horse racing
life-long fan
radio show- and TV-show hostinista and
Her website, will bring together URLs for this blog with her radio, TV and online magazine publishing endeavors. The 'site also will feature a Marketplace, Community and opps to exchange ideas about women in racing; equine welfare and rights and ways to make the sport both more nurturing for horses and more egalitarian for females.

First a wordsmith, Marion is acutely aware of the power of language: as we speak and write, so we live. If language has the power to start and end wars, so too it has the power to save the lives of horses

A f!lly is not a little grrrl horse: a f!lly is a Force of Nature, and through her work, Marion hopes to help reinforce this powerful Truth.


Thoroughbred Racing in Saratoga

The Thoroughbred is a distinct, created breed of horse. Saratoga Springs, New York is a unique, pristine city in Upstate New York.

Put the two together, Thoroughbreds and Saratoga, and you have America's most prestigious, lushly beautiful and important racing meet. For six weeks every summer, the world's best horses, jockeys and trainers come together to compete for trophies, cash and fame.

In this blog, we'll discover All Things Thoroughbred and the lovely international community of horsepeople, both professionals and fans, alike who set up camp in this city. Some come for six weeks, only. Others are here from April through November every year, when the Oklahoma's open. Yet others trek to town to race their mighty steeds—then fall in love with the place; buy a home and move here.

The Saratoga racing family of humans and horses is a year-round endeavour. You think that all the horses all go elsewhere after Labor Day? Then this blog is for you, too.

(Is the reference, "the Oklahoma" lost on you? Stay tuned, you'll feel like a pro in no time.)

Welcome to the only experience on Earth that can boast of such otherworldly beauty and heart-stopping thrills, all in the same breath: Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.