Archives for August 2021


The inaugural Travers Stakes was held at Saratoga Racecourse in 1864, a year after the track’s founding, and became the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds other than the Triple Crown classics.  It has been run since 1864, with the exception of six years (1896, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1911, 1912).  The 2021 edition marks the hundredth anniversary of the Travers that down through the years has been the subject of innuendo, intrigue, and controversy. 

I wrote about the 1921 Travers in a 2014 article on Horse Racing Business titled “Was the 1921 Travers Fixed?”  It is reproduced below.


Arnold Rothstein–a New York gambler, bookmaker, and racehorse owner–who carried the nicknames “The Brain” and “The Big Bankroll,” was never convicted of a single crime, yet his name lives in sports infamy.  He was reputed to be the mastermind behind the Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series and also may have orchestrated a conspiracy that successfully predetermined the outcome of the 1921 Travers Stakes.

Eight players from the Chicago White Sox were alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  Though the eight players were banned for life from Major League Baseball, they were acquitted of criminal charges.

In 1921, Harry Payne Whitney’s filly Prudery was such an overwhelming favorite for the Travers at Saratoga Race Course that it looked as if no other owner would take her on, and that the race would be declared a walkover.  Rothstein, seizing an opportunity, ostensibly to get second-place money, entered his colt Sporting Blood.

On the morning of the Travers, trainer Sam Hildreth entered Harry Sinclair’s formidable colt Grey Lag, as race-day entries were permitted in those days.  (Sinclair was later involved in the Teapot Dome scandal and served a brief prison sentence for jury tampering.)

Bookmakers made Grey Lag the heavy favorite, with Prudery the next choice, and Sporting Blood last at odds of about 3-1.  Rothstein reportedly bet $150,000 on his colt.

Shortly before the Travers was run, Hildreth inexplicably scratched Grey Lag, leaving just two entries.  Sporting Blood won the race by collaring the heavily favored filly Prudery in the stretch, and Rothstein pocketed his considerable wagering earnings plus the winning purse.  The putative cause for Prudery’s loss was that she was off her feed.

Questions still linger and will never be answered:  What did Rothstein know about Prudery’s not eating well prior to the race?  Was Hildreth part of a fix or an innocent party?  Why did Hildreth enter Grey Lag and then abruptly scratch him the same day, with no explanation?

Rothstein, of course, claimed no involvement in both the Black Sox scandal and the suspicious Travers outcome.

On November 6, 1928, Rothstein was assassinated in New York City at age 46, and no one was ever convicted of his murder.  Hildreth and Grey Lag are enshrined in the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame.

Adding intrigue to the 1921 Travers mystery is that Sam Hildreth is likely to have harbored a grudge against the Whitneys, as he was once fired by William Collins Whitney, whose son Harry Payne Whitney owned Prudery.  Could a vengeful Hildreth have entered Grey Lag in the Travers to keep the younger Whitney from winning the race, and then withdrawn the colt after having second thoughts or being overruled by Harry Sinclair?

Copyright © 2014 and 2021 Horse Racing Business

Following is an excerpt from Hildreth’s biography by the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame:

“Samuel Clay Hildreth, the youngest of Vincent and Mary Hildreth’s 10 children, enjoyed success as a trainer in the Midwest for owners Elias J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin and Ed Corrigan before moving to New York in 1898 to work for William Collins Whitney.  Hildreth’s path to the top of the sport became an interesting journey.

Hildreth was an immediate sensation training for Whitney and others in New York.  His first major victory was in the 1899 Belmont Stakes with Jean Bereaud, who was owned by Sydney Paget.  Hildreth’s association with Whitney, however, was brief, as was his initial stay in New York.  In the spring of 1900, Hildreth got into a wild brawl with fellow trainer John E. Madden in the paddock at Morris Park, which led to an embarrassed Whitney dismissing Hildreth as his trainer and basically blackballing him in New York.

Fearing risk of Whitney’s disfavor, most prominent owners stayed away from hiring Hildreth for several years.  Instead of success on the big stage in New York, Hildreth was forced to train in places such as Chicago and New Orleans and slowly build his business.  When Whitney died in 1904, Hildreth returned to the New York stage and established himself as one of the sport’s top trainers.”

A coincidence pertaining to the 1921 Travers episode is that Grey Lag was bred by John E. Madden.


Lots of historically important events transpired in 1977.  Among others, a newly elected president of the United States was inaugurated, the world’s first personal computer was demonstrated at a consumer electronics show, Apple Computer was incorporated, and a 15-nation nuclear non-proliferation agreement was signed.  The two (far less significant) events I remember most vividly from 1977 were none of these.

Etched in my memory bank is Seattle Slew becoming the tenth winner of the American Triple Crown and the first of two colts to do so while undefeated (Justify was the second in 2018).  Also indelibly impressed in my consciousness is the cult-like figure Elvis Presley dying suddenly on the sixteenth of August at age 42. In fact, I remember the exact room in which I saw the shocking report on television.

The rock and roll king and the horse racing immortal (Seattle Slew was ranked ninth on the Blood-Horse magazine’s poll of the best racehorses of the twentieth century) had something in common besides achieving fame and fortune. At the outset of their careers, their potential for greatness went mostly unrecognized and at times their talent was even disparaged.  Presley’s singing and gyrations were widely panned by the critics of the day and Seattle Slew brought a respectable but bargain-basement $17,500 at a Fasig-Tipton yearling auction (about $92,000 in today’s dollars).  Presley was snubbed by the Grand Old Opry and a putative conformation “expert” said that Seattle Slew’s ears made him look like a mule, as if that affected his running.

A shade over sixty percent of the current U. S. population are under 44 years old, so these folks weren’t alive in 1977 and can only turn to video to get a flavor of what it was like to see Elvis or Slew perform up close.  Those of us old enough to have witnessed both in action are fortunate to have done so.

At the conclusion of a Presley concert, “Elvis has left the building” was routinely announced to indicate to fervent fans in attendance that the singer had vacated the premises.  The terminology evolved to take on a broader meaning—slang for “its over” or “there’s nothing left to say.” Elvis and Slew left their temporal home with enduring legacies. We have rarely seen their likes.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


If you have been reading financial news, you may have come across stories about Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Concisely put, an NFT can be described as a record of ownership of something digital, usually a piece of online art.

More precisely, NFTs are little bits of digital art bought and sold like tangible art.  They are recorded on a blockchain ledger linked to the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

Just as a physical piece of paper with the signature of a famous person would be considered valuable, so too are certain digital items. The initial tweet—by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey—was recently sold as an NFT, with the buyer paying a hefty $2.9 million.

So, what in the world has this to do with horse racing? Well, a few weeks ago, news broke that a company, Zed Run, had secured $20 million in funding for its virtual horse racing game.  Calling it a “game” is a little bit of a misnomer, however.   It is more like a virtual stable, where people can buy horses, race them, breed them, and sell them to other buyers.

As you might have guessed, the horses in question are NFTs that potentially sell for a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. A person could invest in a real racehorse for that kind of money, so why do people bother with NFTs?  For the same reason they invest in cryptocurrency or buy a digital record of a tweet: they think it will appreciate.

It’s too soon to tell whether NFTs pose a threat to the racing industry.  While digital alternatives to actual racing are already available, ranging from Virtual Grand Nationals to Frankie Dettori’s Magic Jackpot 7 slots, NFTs are altogether different. Dismissing them as a fad could be an error similar to what transpired in Bitcoin trading a few years ago.  One might think Bitcoin is fake money, or a Ponzi scheme, but millions of others do not.

It is imperative that a company be ever vigilant about the purchasing behavior of people, particularly those in younger generations, who are comfortable operating within virtual worlds.  For many of them, the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a digital racehorse may feel more natural than investing in the genuine thing. The risk of losing younger fans to the virtual world is not unique to racing, of course–virtual offerings are a phenomenon that should be taken seriously by any sport.

Zed Run may turn out to be just another example among many of a niche product that received millions of dollars of venture funding but was a commercial bust.  On the other hand, plenty of established industries have been digitally disrupted in the past, and many more will be in the future.

The popularity of events like the Virtual Grand National has demonstrated that there is an appetite for the dramatically new in horse racing, even among traditional enthusiasts. Will there eventually be auctions for lines of computer code that constitute a legendary digital racehorse–a Secretariat or Frankel–in the same way that yearlings are bid for today?  Don’t rule it out.

Horse Racing Business