Opening Day, 2010.
At last, she’s returned.
Opening Day 1863 … just a little different.
In May 1863 John Morrissey placed an advertisement in the papers calling for those who want to run their horses at a new race meet.
The four-day meet was to begin on Monday, August 3, 1863 in America’s first resort town, Saratoga.
Here’s how it went: The first three races were heats. Best of two stands the victor.
Morrissey put up $2,700 of his own money for purses and paid the lease himself. With admission costing a buck and estimates reaching 3,000 attendees, he likely made his money back.
The opener pitted the tough mare Lizzie W against the accomplished colt Captain Moore.
Others had entered but when they saw who they were up against they bailed faster than you can bat an eyelash.
They broke for the first at 11:30 a.m.
Captain Moore took command early, up the backside Lizzie W matched strides then took the lead. At the far turn they met again, and under considerable urging from both riders dueled down the stretch.
Captain Moore beat the mare, taking the first heat.
Twenty minutes later they readied for their second go.
Lizzie W let Captain Moore set the pace he wanted. At the head of the stretch, the mare kicked it into gear, and again, matched strides with the powerful colt.
Under the wire, it was the girl who won, but by only a neck. Lizzie W had squared things with Captain Moore.
Time for the rubber match.
Captain Moore went off as the 4/5 favorite and Lizzie W had chosen to take the same strategy that led her to victory earlier. Sitting off the pace, she waited until they hit the stretch before making her move. Just as she passed him, Captain Moore all but spit the bit and threw in the towel. He was overmatched and beaten.
Lizzie W – although not the first horse to cross under the wire at Saratoga – has rightfully, and forever been proclaimed, the “first winner” at historic Saratoga Race Course.
In the day’s second (technically fourth) race of the day, Sympathy seemingly had none for her male competitors, giving Thunder his first career loss and beating Morrissey’s own John B. Davidson.
Three more days of racing followed and the four-day meet was a roaring success. Immediately plans were discussed to build a track and run an annual race meet.
But there was a slight problem.
You see, with his background as a prize fighter, thief, muscle for the Irish mob, bouncer at a whorehouse and a gambler/casino operator, Mr. Morrissey wasn’t what we might refer to as the “blue blood” type. Building and operating a venture like this wasn’t going to fly with him at the helm.
Morrissey had fashioned a formidable relationship with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, which yielded him entrance into the circles of William R. Travers and Leonard Jerome. He had genuinely hoped to overcome those obstacles by virtue of being in their company. He knew his past better than anyone, but he yearned for the respect of the affluent in the community.
In fact, Morrissey relied on his relationship with Vanderbilt heavily.
“It was extremely unlikely that influential businessmen such as William Travers, Jay Gould, John Hunter and Leonard Jerome would associate with a man who had John Morrissey’s background unless he had the backing of a stock market titan such as Cornelius Vanderbilt.”i
And he had.
Morrissey and Vanderbilt had a love of gambling and women in common and hit it off well. Vanderbilt enlisted Leonard Jerome into the thoroughbred racing fold.
While Morrissey joined Vanderbilt as a “political agent” to help build his Harlem Railroad, Jerome was the Commodore’s partner. The three were often seen together in circles, much to the disapproval of the well-bred social elite.
Jerome’s business partner, Travers, was involved in horse racing having his own stable in partnership with Hunter and a Vanderbilt in-law, George Osgood.
But even so, Morrissey could not gain their favor.
In 1864 the Saratoga Racing Association was formed by Jerome, Travers and Hunter, but without Morrissey’s name on any official documentation.
Granted, the former pugilist put up most of the money for its construction, but he was not considered “sufficiently respectable for Saratoga”ii and was the silent partner.
They run a NY bred race in Morrissey’s honor on August 5th of this year. It will be in its seventh edition, a newbie in the storied history of Saratoga stakes races.
That week I will run a four-part series on John Morrissey and Richard Canfield on this blog and look forward to reading your comments and earning your feedback.
Until then however, as you prepare to walk through the gates of paradise for her 142nd installment, I wish you well and three small pieces of advice.
1. Never go to the track with more money than you can afford to lose.
2. Don’t take tips. Every momma-luke thinks they know something the next guy doesn’t. Well…he’s wrong. It might even serve you well to immediately throw that horse out (unless you liked ’em already).
3. Don’t change your bet! If you bet a horse because you like the name, or the jockey, or the silks s/he are wearing then BET IT! If you change your selection because someone talks you out of it, or you have found a way to talk yourself out of it, I can assure you your original pick will win!
Saratoga is the Graveyard of Champions.
It is here the damndest things can happen.
And they usually do.
Enjoy your day at Saratoga Race Course.
i. Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.31
ii. Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.34
Bartles, John, Saratoga Stories, Gangsters, Gamblers and Racing Legends, Eclipse Press,
Blood Horse Publications, Lexington, KY 2007