Opening Day, then and now

“Saratoga to-day is as full of transient visitors as a hive is of bees just before swarming time.” (New York Times, August 8, 1865)

To get to Saratoga, Red Smith famously said, go to exit 14 of the Northway, turn left on Union Avenue, and go back 100 years. Though speaking of the racetrack, the same could be said of the town of Saratoga Springs itself. The briefest of walks through and around downtown yields vistas of 19th century homes; bath houses recall the spa treatments to which the fashionable flocked after the Civil War; the mineral springs for which this place is named bubble all over town. William Nack in Sports Illustrated in 1988 wrote, “Santa Anita has its San Gabriel Mountains, Hialeah its flamingos and palms, and Belmont Park its style and elegance, but only Saratoga offers the 19th century.”

They’ve been racing here for two centuries, on Union Avenue since 1864, the year after the first racing meet. Much has changed since 1864, and as Charlie Hayward pointed out on Monday night at the annual preview, even the regal clubhouse here isn’t exactly what it was back then. Even the most romantic racing fans among us must admit that time and change have not left Saratoga untouched. Still, even modern visitors might find 19th century models as we embark upon this 141st season of racing at Saratoga.

As it did 144 years ago, the racing crowd has at first trickled, then streamed, then flooded in. Restaurants have gotten busier; hotels and rental homes have filled up; and the talk has turned to horses, to races, to betting, to socializing.

Early last week every hotel and every boarding house, and almost every private house was full to repletion. The trains during the last half of the week added at least one thousand persons more, and to-day it is estimated that four thousand have arrived. Of this last lot about two thousand belong to the rough class of New-York, Troy and other cities. (New York Times, 1865)

Then as now, officials make their appearance at the racetrack; in 1865, opening day of the racing meet brought governors, judges, and military men, along with those of the “rough class” from downstate.

Unlike most of their modern counterparts, these 19th century visitors still believed in the power of the springs underneath this town; the Times notes that in the morning hours before the racing began, 10,800 glasses of the mineral water from the Congress spring were drunk by those seeking its salutary effects.

With memories of last year’s deluges still vivid, the talk over the last few days—weeks?—has been of opening week weather. It’s not going to rain again like that, is it? Please, please, let it be sunny. Saratoga can’t handle another down meet because of the weather. The opening day weather in 1865 was “all that could have been desired”:

[At] 8:00 this morning…the clouds cleared away, and the sun shone forth, drinking up almost magically the superabundant moisture. A cool, grateful breeze sprang up in the morning, and continued during the day, which, with occasional floating clouds, so tempered the sun’s rays as to make the weather
tolerable—neither too warm nor too cold.

But the rain that had come before the racing sparked conversation that has been all too familiar in recent New York racing:

Sporting men, as well as other people deeply interested in the races, were on the anxious seat all last night and up to 9 o’clock this morning, about the weather as affecting the track…Excited men, with scowling brows, could be seen in groups at the different club-rooms and about the piazzas and hallways of the different hotels and public places of resort, all eagerly and anxiously
discussing the probabilities of the weather on the morrow. One excited and disappointed “sport” offered to bet $100 to $50 that the storm would continue during the week, without takers…While a variety of opinions were expressed as to the weather prospects, there was only one opinion as to the track, that would be in a bad condition, sure.

Surprise as well as gratification was manifested when these people arrived upon the spot, at about 11 o’clock, to find the track in good condition. A feeling which the horses in for the race, if the truth could be told, doubtless sympathized.

Credit due, then, to the 1865 equivalent of NYRA’s Glenn Kozak, director of racing surfaces.

Then as now, a fairly wholesome crowd showed up to the races at Saratoga, though reportedly, “2,000 thieves, roughs, and blacklegs” joined the “fashionably dressed ladies and children, and well-behaved and well-dressed men” who turned out. We can only hope that today’s scribes can report as approvingly as “E.A.P.” did in 1865:

…there was no loud talking, no vulgar expressions made use of, no immoderate manifestations of disapprobation or approbation; not a pocket was picked, nor a man knocked down, so far as could be ascertained. Whole family parties—composed of the most respectable citizens—were seated in groups upon the main stand…

As I walk to the track today, I’ll pass homes that have been here since the early days of racing in Saratoga; later, I’ll walk through a clubhouse with elements dating to 1864. I can sip some of that mineral water, and watch the skies for signs of rain, as my predecessors did. I won’t be wearing a gown nor carrying a parasol, and I’ll bet at a pari-mutuel machine instead of with a human in a betting ring–the very fact that I’ll be legally betting sets me apart from those 19th century female visitors.

But with the romantic veil that Saratoga inevitably throws over racing and a little imagination, I can envision that opening day in 1865, and hope that my experience will be like that of those visitors: “…if their expectations were great, they have not been disappointed.”

Check out a look at opening day 1919 at Colin’s Ghost, a must-read for those interested in racing history.

E.A.P. “The Races—Second Annual Meeting of the Saratoga Association…” New York Times. 8 Aug 1865. 29 July 2009.

Nack, William. “Saratoga.” Sports Illustrated Vault. 22 Aug 1988. 29 July 2009.

3 thoughts on “Opening Day, then and now

  1. Best wishes for a great Meet Teresa. This Opening Day post sure sets a wonderful tone. Let's hope Saratoga Russell gets his picture taken later today. My $2 says he does!

  2. "By the time they get to Albany in that hump-mobile he drives, it'll be Opening Day at Saratoga." — Al Pacino as Col. Frank Slade in "Scent of a Woman."

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