Saturday is the 142nd edition of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. It is the oldest major stakes race in the United States, with the first running held in 1864. The Travers is called “the Mid-Summer Derby” and is the highlight of the Saratoga season. Some of the greatest racehorses have won the Travers, including Man o’ War, Twenty Grand, and Buckpasser. The race is named for William Riggin Travers (1819-1887), one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course.

In 1863, the politician, gambling impresario, and former bare knuckles heavyweight champion John “Old Smoke” Morrissey conducted a four-day race meet at Patten and Cole’s trotting track across the street from today’s Saratoga Race Course. At the time, the Civil War was ripping apart the United States, with Gettysburg (July 1, 2, and 3, 1863) accounting for the most casualties of any battle in American history. Morrissey’s advertisement in the Daily Saratogian obliquely referred to the Civil War: “Running races! AT SARATOGA!… All sections of the North and West, and some portions of the South will be represented by their best horses.”

Morrissey’s financial backers were comprised of some of the country’s most successful businessmen, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Hunter (the first chairman of the Jockey Club), Leonard Jerome (Winston Churchill’s grandfather) and William R. Travers.

The inaugural meet was so successful that Morrissey founded the Saratoga Association to build a new racetrack and supplied much of the capital. William R. Travers was the president, but Morrissey’s name was not listed among the patrician organizers because his background was unacceptable in elevated social circles. When Morrissey was a member of the U. S. Congress, he threatened “to lick any man in the House” (apparently there were no takers).

Travers in effect was the front man for Morrissey. Travers made his fortune on Wall Street and used some of his earnings on breeding (in Westchester County, New York) and racing Thoroughbreds. He owned (with John Hunter) Kentucky, the winner of the first running of the Travers in 1864. Kentucky is honored in the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


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