In Saratoga Race Course: the August Place to Be, author Kimberly Gatto sets the scene: It’s the summer of 1861, and a tall, mean-looking boxer shows up in Saratoga Springs with the intention of building a gambling empire. “John Morrissey had arrived, and Saratoga was about to be changed forever.”
Besides being a California Gold Rush prospector, a mean poker player, an International Boxing Hall of Famer, the leader of the New York gambling gang the Dead Rabbits, a New York State Senator and an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, John Morrissey, a.k.a. “Old Smoke,” was the businessman responsible for the establishment of the Saratoga Race Course. According to Gatto, Morrissey traveled to Saratoga that summer “armed with a barrage of roulette wheels, faro cards and…suave dealers and strong-armed attendants.” He intended to start a casino, luxurious enough to attract a flock of wealthy travelers, but because gambling was an off-color activity reserved for after dark, Morrissey decided to establish a world-class racetrack to entertain his deep-pocketed patrons during the daylight hours. He constructed the course with the help of some wealthy and well-positioned friends he made while dabbling in the stock market.
The first race meet was held in August 1863, one month after the Battle of Gettysburg. The event made headlines in the local and national press, and Saratoga’s Grand Union and the United States Hotels on Broadway—two of the largest hotels in the world at the time—quickly filled to capacity.
Encouraged by the consistent success of the racetrack, Morrissey established the Saratoga Club House. In All the Law in the World Wont’s Stop Them, Greg Veitch describes the reception of the lavish casino: “By the time Morrissey’s grand offering to the gambling gods was complete in 1870, he had already spent $90,000 on the building. Descriptions of the elegant hall abound…massive mirrors, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, cornices and mantels made of French cheval, ornate carvings in the furniture including elaborate tiger heads on the mirrors, silk curtains, golden chandeliers and hundreds of lights.” For all the extravagance of his businesses, Morrissey remained the same eccentric, rough-and-tumble character. “Morrissey enjoyed performing the public service of directing traffic in front of his Club House,” writes Veitch. “Standing in the middle of East Congress Street at Putnam Street, Morrissey was a sight to behold as he directed the throngs of people, horses, and carriages to and fro.”
Morrissey died the same way that he lived: legendarily. As the story goes, in 1878, he allegedly kicked it at the Adelphi’s bar—though some claim he succumbed to pneumonia and bronchitis in Room No. 5 (the Adelphi named its new bar, Morrissey’s, after him). Either way, it was an untimely death: “Old Smoke” was only 47, but it capped a career that helped put Saratoga on the map for good.