Archives for August 2010

MUSINGS FROM SARATOGA

Greetings from Saratoga Springs.  Following are some varied thoughts.

 1. The annual Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearling Sale took place this past Monday and Tuesday night. This is a boutique auction with plenty of history. The most famous yearling to ever go to public auction, Man o’ War, sold here.

The Monday night edition, as usual, was a social event surrounding a horse sale, with a buzz in the crowd. People were dressed in everything from shorts and blue jeans to cocktail dresses and tuxedos. Forbes magazine was there to cover what its writer referred to as “billionaires, celebrities, and royals.” On Tuesday night, the rain began to fall about a third of the way through the auction, and the auctioneer invited everyone outside to come into the pavilion to the second floor. Shortly thereafter, he requested–to little avail–that the people on the packed upper level hold down the noise, as the buyers and sellers on the first floor were having trouble hearing the auctioneer.

Portfolio magazine carried a downbeat article (“Tough Odds”) just prior to the 2010 sale that explained why some usual buyers would not be taking part this year, owing to economic conditions.  The narrative featured Jackson Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stables of Funny Cide fame, who said he would not be buying any yearlings because he could not find enough investors (Click here to read “Tough Odds.” For a piece in Portfolio from 2007 on Shiek Mohammed of Dubai, entitled “The Sheik Who Would be King of Horse Racing,” click here.)

The sale had 202 colts and fillies in the catalogue and the buyback rate was 28.7%, up from 21.6% in 2009. The average price was $277,051 compared to $328,434 in 2009. The median price was $250,000, the same as for last year. One colt went for over $1 million ($1.2 million), whereas five entries brought more than $1 million in 2009. Gross revenues declined because there were fewer yearlings sold this year.  These results should be evaluated keeping in mind that the 2009 sales figures represented a record high for Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga August auction.

My impression was that on both Monday and Tuesday night, the number of bidders on virtually every entry was limited. For the most part, there was not a lot of activity and certainly no all-out bidding wars. The sale-topping AP Indy-sired colt out of a Breeders’ Cup-winning mare looks the part of a top racehorse and he will be in the competent hands of Todd Pletcher.

A missed opportunity? Hip #195 was a striking-looking Irish-bred colt by Cape Cross, sire of European phenom Sea the Stars, that received a bid of $295,000 but did not reach his reserve price. This colt has the conformation of a good racehorse.

2. I am not a restaurant expert but I have developed a list of favorites in the many years I have been coming to Saratoga in August. The Saratoga Springs area may have the best restaurants for its size of any city, so any list will leave off some excellent choices.

 My old reliables are: Lillian’s, Longfellow’s, and The Wishing Well. For Italian food, I enjoy Sergio’s and Pennell’s. Siro’s is an experience (an expensive one) but a Saratoga tradition. If I had to choose only one of these for dinner, it would be a close call but I would select The Wishing Well. For lunch, I would choose Lillian’s. The breakfast buffet at the Gideon Putnam Resort is excellent and eating outdoors in the patio is relaxing. For a change of pace and a scenic drive, travel to the The Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing (about 47 miles north of Saratoga Springs) for the breakfast buffet or lunch or dinner looking out over the lake.

Two well-known New York City restaurants–Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke and Shake Shack–have opened branches on the racetrack grounds.

3. Next time you go to the Saratoga Race Course, or pass by the Canfield Casino, or stroll by the Adelphi Hotel in downtown Saratoga Springs, think for a moment about the incredible story of the self-made visionary who made the annual racing season at the Spa a reality.

John Morrissey, the man who founded Saratoga Race Course in 1863 and Morrissey’s Club House in 1866 (forerunner of the Canfield Casino), was born poor in County Tipperary Ireland in 1831 and died rich and famous in 1878, age 47, in a room at the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs. (The intimate “high Victorian” hotel is still housing guests in the 2010 racing season. It is located near the onetime sites of the two most famous hotels in Saratoga Springs history, the Grand Union–on the West side of Broadway and once the largest hotel in the world–and the U. S.–where Borders bookstore is today.)

Morrissey’s achievements in his short life were extraordinary. His parents came to New York when he was two. Morrissey’s youth in Troy, New York and later New York City was one of grueling manual labor, gang violence, poverty, a short incarceration, and “No Irish Need Apply” signs at places of employment. His fighting prowess eventually made him the Heavyweight Boxing Champion (bare knuckles). Morrissey’s nickname “Old Smoke” came about when, during a fight with a member of a rival gang, he was pinned on his back against burning coals from an overturned stove. Although badly burned, he won the brawl. (The movie “Gangs of New York” depicts the life that Morrissey would have lived as a member of the gang known as the Dead Rabbits. He was a nemesis in real life of the movie’s main villain, William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. A friend of Morrissey’s shot and killed Poole in 1855.)

Backed by the Tammany Hall political machine of William “Boss” Tweed, Morrissey became a two-term U. S. Congressman and a New York State Senator (he died of pneumonia before actually taking office in the Senate). Morrissey quit Congress, fed up with the corruption of Tammany Hall and he eventually testified against Boss Tweed.

In his quest to build a race course in Saratoga Springs, the rough and tumble Irish-immigrant Morrissey was financially backed by wealthy members of the New York elite, William Travers and John Hunter (founding chairman of The Jockey Club).

Morrissey would become a noted gambling entrepreneur/investor and he left an estate worth more than $2 million (using the consumer price index, this is equivalent of about $45 million today). The New York Senate closed on the day of his funeral and 15,000-20,000 people turned out to pay their respects as he was taken to his grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery near Troy, New York.

If you are interested in Saratoga Springs history, you may want to read an intriguing new book by Geoffrey O’Brien titled: The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of a Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America. The Walworth’s were a patrician old-line New York family, whose mansion, Pine Grove, was in Saratoga Springs from 1815 until 1955, when it was demolished after the death of the last Walworth. As the book’s title indicates, the family became so dysfunctional that it lost its prominence. John Morrissey is mentioned in the book twice, but in an unflattering manner, due to his background as a gang member, pugilist, associate of Boss Tweed, and gambling impresario. (Click here to see a book review.)

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

AMERICANA: THE HAMBLETONIAN

The Hambletonian is Standardbred racing’s showcase day, its equivalent of the Kentucky Derby for Thoroughbreds. NBC will telecast the 2010 renewal live from The Meadowlands Race Track in New Jersey on Saturday, August 7 at 3 PM.

While the 3-year-old trotters that will compete in the Hambletonian do not bear a close resemblance to Thoroughbreds in regards to conformation or way of moving, they, in fact, share some of the same lineage. Messenger (1780-1801) was a grey English-born Thoroughbred stallion, who was brought to the United States in 1788. He descended from all three of the foundation sires for Thoroughbreds (Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian), although Messenger is most closely related to the Godolphin Arabian, who appears twice in his pedigree as his great, great grandsire (click here to see Messenger’s pedigree). The immortal Man o’ War carried the blood of Messenger.

Messenger’s legacy as a sire of Thoroughbreds is overshadowed by his role in the bloodlines of three present-day breeds—Standardbreds, American Saddlebreds, and Tennessee Walking Horses. Messenger’s great grandson, Rysdyk’s Hambletonian (1849-1876), also known as Hambletonian 10, is the foundation sire for Standardbreds (click here to see Hambletonian’s pedigree). Almost all trotters and pacers trace their lineage to four sons of Hambletonian 10: George Wilkes, Dictator, Happy Medium, and Electioneer.

George Wilkes the journalist was the publisher of a leading 19th century turf publication Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. His namesake, the aforementioned stallion George Wilkes, sired Patchen Wilkes, who sired Joe Patchen, who sired the Indiana-bred pacer of all pacers Dan Patch. Pacing horses have such a prominent place in Hoosier-state history that the Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Association adopted the moniker.

The first Hambletonian race was held at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. It was run at: Sryacuse in 1926 and 1928; Lexington, Kentucky in 1927 and 1929; Goshen, New York from 1930-1956, except for 1943 (when war restrictions required the race be moved to New York City’s Empire City Track); Du Quoin, Illinois from 1957-1980; and The Meadowlands from 1981 to the present.

The legendary Greyhound won the Hambletonian in 1935 in a time of 2:02 ¼. In 1958, Emily’s Pride was the first winner to beat the two-minute mark with a time of 1:59 4/5. The 2009 winner, Muscle Hill, holds the race record of 1:50 1/5. Winning drivers in the Hamletonian read like a pantheon of Hall of Famers, which they are: Palin, Miller, Ervin, Dancer, Haughton, Campbell, and other luminaries of the sport of harness racing.

Harness racing is a vestige of a simpler day in the United States, when young gentlemen tried to impress young ladies with a good “road horse” instead of a car and people went to county and state fairs to see who had the fastest horse.  The modern-day Hambletonian, of course, has little resemblance to the early years. The racetrack is in busy New Jersey, the sulky technology is advanced, the track is engineered for speed, and the race is telecast to the world. But the horses themselves still go around an oval, just like their predecessors. They carry the bloodlines of Messenger and Hambletonian 10, and it is in their DNA all the way back to the Godolphin Arabian to fight to cross the finish line first.

This Saturday, if only for  a short while, the turmoil in New Jersey horse racing will be overlooked while the spectacle of the Hambletonian plays out once again.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business