It was a beautiful summer day, the day of our return, and the fragrance of the flowers and the soft beauty of the green shrubbery lining the walks of the Saratoga course, and the flags flying and the band up there in the grandstand thumping out a lively tune, while the old crowds moved around the broad lawns in the same old carefree way, all gave me the thrill that comes once in a lifetime. — Sam Hildreth
As Saratoga prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Thoroughbred racing tomorrow, lost in the festivities is another noteworthy historical marker: the centennial of the return of racing to this resort town, after nearly three-year absence because of New York’s stringent anti-gambling laws.
One hundred years ago today, the gates of Saratoga Race Course swung open for the first time since August 1911. Twenty-five days of racing were scheduled, and the meet began so well that the Saratoga Racing Association contemplated five more days, to stretch racing into September.
The hot horse that summer was Old Rosebud, “the champion two-year-old of the west”– Kentucky in those days considered the west—who was coming to Saratoga with just two defeats in 12 starts.
Despite a successful meet at Belmont, which had opened on May 30 and run through the end of July, racing fans looked uneasily at the state government’s relationship with racing, submitting to Governor Sulzer a petition with more than 26,000 signatures, asking that racing be allowed to continue, albeit without sanctioned, official gambling.
In an article entitled, “Twenty-Six Thousand New Yorkers Beseech Governor To Encourage Racing,” the Daily Racing Form reported,
The committee members endeavored to demonstrate conclusively for the governor’s edification that racing is a sport attracting wide interest, from which the greatest of benefits may be obtained both by spectators and by the breeders of horseflesh, and that it can be and has been…conducted without one iota of illegality.
The Form reprints the petition in full, and it’s worth a read. Some highlights:
Thoroughbred horse racing in itself is a healthful, entertaining pastime…and a stimulus to an industry which in every civilized country today receives the careful and liberal encouragement of the government.
Great racing events punctuate the holidays of spring and summer so that in time they have become the cause of a vast influx of strangers from every part of the surrounding country, as well as from foreign lands.
Pleasure seeking is always accompanied by regalia, dress and festivities. Moving and happy throngs in a big community during such holiday events crowd transportation lines, fill hostelries, restaurants and theatres, so that in the end all branches of trade receive some benefit and promote the cities’ growth.
New York in this respect would respond in the same manner were it not that it suffers from over-zeal on the part of certain citizens in the State of New York who have pursued and are now engaged in a crusade of persecution against racing under the guide of a hunt for the extermination of gambling.
Maybe we can just change the date and send it to Albany this week? (I guess we should celebrate—though perhaps “acknowledge” is a better term–the centennial of a contentious relationship between New York State and Thoroughbred racing.)
Despite disenchantment with their state government, racegoers held no grudges against the sport itself, and the New York Times noted that the village of Saratoga sprang to life as it anticipated opening day:
Saratoga has awakened tonight as it has not for three years. The racing crowd has taken possession and Broadway is thronged with New Yorkers and visitors from the West…
…the real holiday spirit prevails throughout the village, and as each train load comes in the visitors are joyously welcomed by the natives. It means a harvest for them and the prices for accommodations have soared tremendously.
[So I guess we should celebrate—though perhaps “acknowledge” is a better term–the centennial of locals raising prices in advance of the summer invasion.]
Those visitors helped swell the opening day crowd to nearly 10,000 (according to the Saratogian; the New York Times put the number at 7,000), “even though,” according to the Daily Racing Form, “the card was not inviting one.”
(So I guess we should also celebrate–though perhaps “acknowledge” is a better term–the centennial of turf writers complaining about the quality of races in New York.)
The much-touted Old Rosebud won the Flash in a romp, and Cock o’ the Walk took the Saratoga Handicap, “greeted with an applause that equaled that accorded any of the winners in the more prosperous days of the turf,” wrote the Times.
Racing returned to Saratoga Springs to-day with much of the glory that made the village the Mecca for racing folk for almost half a century…the enthusiasm that prevailed with the return of the thoroughbreds spoke volumes for the popularity of the sport.
(So I guess we should celebrate the centennial of the New York Times covering racing daily and glowingly. Oh, wait…)
Trainer Sam Hildreth, who owned many of the horses he raced and had led the nation in owners’ earnings for the three years before the racing hiatus, had sold his horses when racing ceased and moved to France to train. So encouraged was he by the summer’s racing that he decided to return to the United States to train August Belmont’s horses—Belmont, who was considered largely responsible for bringing the sport back to life in this state.
Hildreth’s words, written in his The Spell of the Turf and quoted by Edward Hotaling, were no doubt shared by many of the thousands who came to the Spa that summer to enjoy racing after too long an absence. As dismaying as those years devoid of the sport may have been, they may also be heartening. Racing survived a hostile governor, an anti-gambling movement, and nearly three years of dormancy…and that is a centennial worth celebrating.
Throughout 2013, Brooklyn Backstretch will re-visit the racing events of 1913, the year that racing returned to New York after a nearly three-year absence; click here for previous stories. I also wrote about this topic for this year’s Hall of Fame program, available at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Quoted and consulted:
“Cock O’The Walk Wins the Saratoga,” August 3, 1913.
“Hildreth to return to America” Daily Racing Form, August 3, 1913.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: SyracuseUniversity Press, 1995
“Old Rosebud Carded To Start,” Daily Racing Form, August 2, 1913.
“Racing Throngs Crowd Saratoga,” Daily Racing Form, August 2, 1913.
“Racing Warmly Welcomed,” Daily Racing Form, August 3, 1913.
“Sulzer Gets Big Petition,” Daily Racing Form, August 2, 1913.