Almost a century ago, at South Florida’s beautiful Hialeah Park Race Track, a child by the name of Ralph fell in love with the sport of Thoroughbred racing. He was a wide-eyed, pint-sized guest of a family friend, but this was no fleeting childhood hobby—in the summer of 1940, he drove from his Virginia college to Saratoga Springs for the first time, to watch Whirlaway win the 1940 Hopeful Stakes.
It would not be his last trip to the Spa City; in fact, Saratoga Race Course would be the very spot where the now-legendary Ralph Cookerly Wilson, Jr. forged his path toward becoming a New York icon. He was a bona fide horse racing super-fan until the day he died, but he would make history as a visionary in a different sport: football.
The starts of Wilson’s horse racing hobby and career success ran parallel. On his way to making a fortune in the insurance, trucking, media and construction industries, he bought his first horse in 1950: a 2-year old colt by Shawnee, for $7,000. “He was limping walking back to my barn and he never started,” an older and wiser Wilson told the Daily Racing Form decades later. “What a beginning!”
Not that this discouraged him too much: In 2000, it was reported that he hadn’t, 50 years later, missed a year at The Spa since. Indeed, the Michigan native’s fortunes quickly changed. The key turning point for his endeavors came in 1960 with the $20,000 purchase of the filly Dinner Partner at that year’s Saratoga yearling sale. She had modest success in 29 starts as a race mare, but she was an all-star broodmare: She was the dam of four stakes winners and, through her daughter Native Partner, is the ancestress of champions in North America, Europe, Japan and India.
Around the same time Wilson started experiencing success as a horse owner, he also became a minority owner of the NFL’s Detroit Lions and began to dream of having his own team. “Minority owner” was simply not what this ambitious—and increasingly wealthy man—wanted.
Destiny struck in the summer of 1959—right here in the Spa City. “I was at Saratoga for the races,” he told an interviewer in 1991. “I came upon this notice in The New York Times. It said somebody named Lamar Hunt from Dallas was going to start a new football league. This man Hunt was upset because the NFL wouldn’t give him a franchise. So he was looking for prospective investors and team owners for his league.”
Wilson knew how hard it was to get a team in the NFL. “So I called up this guy Hunt,” he said. “I had no idea who Hunt was, but he told me to get to Dallas right away because two other guys who wanted to put a team in Miami were en route to see him.”
Perhaps using his horse racing experiences, Wilson fled Saratoga immediately and won the race to Dallas. He secured the franchise originally planned for Miami in the new American Football League (AFL). But he soon faced an insurmountable challenge: Miami didn’t have a place for his team to play.
“They wouldn’t rent me the Orange Bowl,” he said during the same interview. “I owned a home in Miami Beach, for gosh sakes.”
Competition ensued: Wilson ended up with five cities vying for his new team. He selected the Western New York city on the shores of Lake Erie on the advice of a friend, who assured him that there was significant football interest in Buffalo. Wilson announced his pick in a telegram to Hunt with the now-famous words, “Count me in with Buffalo.”
Flash forward 63 years, after both good times (the Bills made it to the Super Bowl a record-breaking four years in a row in the 1990s) and bad (they lost all four, three of them embarrassingly—then suffered one of the longest playoff droughts in NFL history), and the team is again in its glory. Led by superstar quarterback Josh Allen, New York State’s only true team—cheered on by a staunch Bills Mafia fan base and its ridiculously catchy “Shout” fight song that’s a customized version of the 1950s classic—is, at press time, the preseason favorite to win that Lombardi Trophy at last. Wilson isn’t alive to see it, having died in 2014 as the reigning sole owner of the Bills and the last original owner of the eight AFL teams to hold onto his team. They had been nicknamed the “Foolish Club” for daring to go against the mighty NFL (which eventually conceded the new league’s success and merged with it). At 90 years old, the friendly, cardigan-wearing owner known for his integrity became the oldest inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 95 when he died.
Throughout his decades with the almighty Buffalo Bills, even as Wilson’s star rose as the team’s infamous owner, his Augusts continued to belong to Saratoga, where he raced his many horses. During the 1950s and ’60s, he and his family often rented “cottages” on North Broadway, most notably the Grande residence at 658 North Broadway and the Wilson House (no relation) of Skidmore College. Wilson had three daughters from his first marriage: Christy, Edith (“Dee Dee”) and Linda, who was pro football’s first female scout and then a VP with the Bills franchise until her passing in 2009. “Oh, Saratoga was great fun!” Christy tells Saratoga Living. “Sometimes we went to the track early in the morning, and we went to the races every day.” The family was even written up in a society column at least once: “The usual quiet and darkness of North Broadway was broken Tuesday night as the home at 720 lit up for the Ralph C. Wilson bash,” read a 1969 article in The Saratogian, which also noted the party’s not one but two orchestras for dancing, and that the three sisters wore “silk jersey long gowns. All were different and colorful.”
More recently, Wilson and his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1999 after 10 years together, preferred staying at the Gideon Putnam and dining at The Wishing Well. “Oh, Ralph enjoyed Saratoga very much,” Mary, tells Saratoga Living. “He really enjoyed the people that worked [at the track], but also the attendees who were fun personalities, with clever names.” Jeff Littman, Wilson’s longtime vice president and chief financial officer for his horse breeding and racing (oh, and the Bills), concurs: “Ralph loved colorful characters. He really liked the ones with a strong intellect who could converse interestingly about sports, but also give him a good laugh.”
Mary maintains their box at the track to this day, and loves sharing her memories of her and her husband’s trips here. One favorite stars the owners of PJ’s BAR-B-QSA, PJ and Carolyn Davis, who hail from suburban Buffalo. The couple have been Bills season ticket–holders since the O.J. Simpson era, and in the 1990s, a good portion of the PJ’s parking lot had signs indicating “Bills fan parking only.” (PJ’s still has plenty of Bills signs, jerseys and other items, and is packed during Bills games). The Wilsons heard about the restaurant and stopped in to meet the super-fans. Upon sitting down to eat, Mary asked the server, “Would you kindly ask the owner to come out here to speak with Ralph Wilson?” The server returned shortly afterwards and advised Mary that the owner would not come out as he believed her message was a practical joke. After some prodding, PJ and Carolyn rushed out to meet their team’s owner and his wife.They remained close after that, with PJ even DJing at a tennis tournament the Wilsons organized in Florida.
“Ralph didn’t think of himself above anyone, and he didn’t try to impress anybody,” Mary says. “He was just a normal person who loved horse racing and loved Saratoga.”
So, Saratogians, our neighbors in Western New York might worship the great Ralph Wilson, but here on the eastern side of the state, fans should rightfully feel a significant connection to the team and its founding owner.
Go Bills! Saratoga Springs—the city where you were conceived—is rooting for you.