SARATOGA’S UNLIKELY BEGINNING

Saratoga Race Course has endured for 150 years through wars, depressions, occasional neglect, and the New York gambling law that shut it down for two years. And not so long ago it was more of an afterthought for the New York Racing Association, which focused much more attention on Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.

What is remarkable is that “The Spa” was founded by a former street-gang hooligan in the wake of unfathomable bloodshed on Pennsylvania farm land turned battlefield and lethal mayhem on the streets of New York City.

John Morrissey emigrated with his family from Ireland to Troy, New York, at age two. Morrissey’s involvement as a young man with gang warfare in Manhattan enabled him to perfect the pugilistic skills that made him the world’s heavyweight bare-knuckles boxing champion.

Morrissey’s fame led to a career as a casino and racetrack impresario and as an elected official, serving in the New York state legislature and the U. S. Congress.

On August 3, 1863, Morrissey and several patrician investors held the first Thoroughbred card at Saratoga, on the site of what was known as the “Trotting Course.” Today, it is difficult to envision what it would have been like to be there, with the epic and awful events of July 1863 reverberating across the land.

On the first of July, the Battle of Gettysburg began. The carnage culminated on July 3rd with the immortal but failed Pickett’s Charge, which was the beginning of the end of the South’s quest for independence. Then, on July 13, the four-day-long New York City Draft Riots erupted, claiming the lives of approximately 119 people, mostly African Americans, in what remains the deadliest episode of civil unrest in American history.

Against this backdrop of turmoil and killing, Saratoga Race Course emerged and grew into an elegant sporting refuge attractive to generations of people of all ages. And it never has been more valuable to NYRA as a business entity and its most recognizable brand.

Copyright © 2013 The Blood-Horse. Used with permission.

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