If you think that acrimony, turf wars, and internecine bickering in the racing industry are recent phenomena, a look at the 1877 Saratoga season will quickly disabuse you.
While the opening of that meeting was greeted with the usual hyperbole, it was not without its controversy. Several weeks in advance of the July 25 opening day, the Saratoga Association’s John Morrissey, founder of Saratoga Race Course, imposed an unusual restriction on the horses that would run at his track that summer. That restriction caused such an uproar that on July 11, Morrissey took to the New York Times to explain his position.
“The program,” wrote Morrissey, “adopted by the Saratoga Association was the result of mature deliberation and in accordance with our best judgment of propriety and justice.”
He observed that in previous years, the Long Branch meeting at Monmouth occurred so close to the Saratoga season that the horses were “worn out, and more in need of hospital treatment than more racing.”
They were not worth to us the money we offered. Without saying anything of the unfriendly fact that the Long Branch meeting was placed so near to ours, it is sufficient to assure the public that the course taken by us was necessary in a purely business point of view. Self-protection required it. We wanted an equivalent for the money offered.
We do not propose to dictate to them what they shall do; nor shall we criticize their acts; but we do not propose that they shall manage our property when they own no portion of it.
We intend to exclude all horses that run in the US (at any other than the Saratoga course) after 24th June. Those gentlemen who have sent their horses here in such large numbers to assist us in our meeting shall have the exclusive benefit of the extra traces we propose to give.
As you might expect, Morrissey’s letter occasioned a response, from someone identifying himself as “A Lover Of The Turf.”
There are a number of gentlemen in this section and other parts of the country who have thousands of dollars invested in thoroughbred horses, and while Mr. Morrissey denies them the right to manage his property, he assumes the right to manage theirs…the turfmen of the country purchase or raise their own horses, pay their own trainers, jockeys, stable lads, oats, corn, and traveling expenses without aid from the Saratoga proprietors; but not withstanding this, Messrs. Morrissey & Co. have the presumption and effrontery to prescribe when, where, and how they shall run their horses…
Are the turfmen of the country going to quietly submit to be dictated to by the Saratoga proprietors when, how, and where they shall run their horses? If they do, they are not the gentlemen we take them to be. We suppose if the penalty and exclusion plan does not work well, next year they will insert a clause preventing any jockey from riding at Saratoga who has ridden a race over any other course after some specific time, or perhaps they will exclude any person who has visited and witnessed a race over any other course.
Demonstrating that contemporary turf lovers aren’t the only ones who crave data, the writer then provided a long list of horses who ran at Long Branch and then at Saratoga, concluding, “Here are 26 horses that started 72 times and won 13 races. From this showing they were certainly not on crutches, and are just the kind of horses most desirable about a race-course—willing and ready to run.
And proving that complaints about an extended summer meet are nothing new, he went on, “Instead of Long Branch trenching upon Saratoga time, the latter seems inclined to absorb the whole Summer, as they commence July 21 and end Aug. 25.”
He proposed that the American Jockey Club purchase Monmouth in order to hold regular meetings so that turfmen could not be “made a party to the private animosities” of Morrissey, whom he accused of running “Saratoga race-track for the benefit of his club-house alone…”
The course itself is remarkably fast and safe, and with its well-kept lawns and the numerous hedges, fences, and white-painted walls of the steeple-chase course, make an ensemble of rustic beauty which captivates the eye. Racing with such surroundings becomes doubly attractive, and is fully appreciated by the high class of people who annually congregate at the Springs.
The feature race on the meeting’s first day was the 14th running of the Travers Stakes, whose trophy was on display when racing began:
On a pedestal in front of the stand was displayed the elegant piece of plate given to the Travers Stake by the gentleman after whom it is named, and attracted much attention by its artistic designs. It is a double épergne standing from a base, rising from which is a column surmounted by a female figure holding a prancing steed….it is a trophy worth a fine struggle among the champions.
The recipient of the trophy that year was Baden Baden, owned by Mr. William Astor, who had purchased him after the colt had won the Kentucky Derby in his first start as 3-year-old. He finished second in the Belmont but was placed third, and in another verse of the song that sounds so familiar, was retired at the end of his three-year-old season, having made 10 lifetime starts (4-3-1).
Happy Travers Weekend…
Quoted and consulted
“The Races at Saratoga,” New York Times, July 16, 1877. (Preview of the summer meeting)
“The Turf At Saratoga,” New York Times, July 22, 1877. (Opening day, including Travers report)
“Saratoga Racing Penalties” New York Times, July 13, 1877. (Response to Morrissey letter)
“Racing penalties At Saratoga,” New York Times, July 11, 1877. (Morrissey letter)
“The Racing In Detail,” New York Times, June 10, 1877. (Baden Baden’s Belmont)
Baden Baden’s Kentucky Derby chart.