By now, most Saratogians know the story well: In the summer of 1863, a bare-knuckle boxing champion named John Morrissey put into motion the first formal horse racing meet in town, and one year later, helped open Saratoga Race Course, which would soon become one of the nation’s leading racetracks.
Horse racing in Saratoga, however, was not a new concept when Morrissey arrived on the scene. In fact, racing had a sporadic history in the area for decades prior to that famous four-day meeting in August 1863—and a checkered history at that. The earliest attempt at introducing the sport in the then Village of Saratoga Springs was an abject failure. On March 25, 1825, Saratoga County assemblymen Nicholas B. Doe, Alpheus Goodrich and Phillip Schuyler petitioned the state to exempt the village from an 1802 law that banned racing in the state of New York. Schuyler, the grandson of the famous Revolutionary War hero of the same name, made a motion “to amend an act to prevent horse racing.” Although the proposed exemption won a committee vote at the state level, it became buried in political gridlock and never advanced.
In fact, the anti-racing statute in New York proved unpopular from the start. Only two years after being passed, the law against racing was viewed as “so repugnant to the public sentiment that it is incapable of execution, and the unpunished violation of law has a tendency to bring into contempt the authority of government,” according to a contemporary account. Eventually, the law was simply ignored. There are reports of horse races taking place in Saratoga as early as the mid-1820s, but the proceedings proved to be haphazard and dangerous. According to author Edward Hotaling, “Breakneck racing through the streets had gotten so scary that even this horsey town officially banned it, not that it could really stop it.”
Saratoga racing finally got its big break in 1847. With the New York State Fair coming to town, local entrepreneurs George Cole and Alfonso Patten built the Saratoga Trotting Course. The venue was an ideal shroud for illegal racing. Cole and Patten circumvented the anti-racing law by insisting that the trotters only be given exhibitions and speed trials as part of the fair’s program. Village officials turned a blind eye, saying the track was out of their jurisdiction because of its location just outside the fairgrounds and past the village line.
Cole and Patten were backed financially by future Congressman James Marvin, the wealthy proprietor of the United States Hotel and Saratoga’s village supervisor at the time. Cole and Patten fibbed that the track was set up solely for the State Fair when they opened for racing on August 14, 1847, a month before the fair was scheduled to begin. The races brought in a massive crowd, estimated at 5,000 people, and captured the attention of the New York Herald, which said the roads near the trotting grounds were jammed with “pedestrians, equestrians, and carriages of all kinds.” The patrons included “a number of lovely women from the South, whose interest in the event seemed greater than that of the gentlemen,” the newspaper reported. “Some forgot the name of decency and even common honesty as to climb the fences.”
The inaugural contest at the Saratoga Trotting Course featured the most famous horse of the era, Lady Suffolk. The inspiration for Stephen Foster’s popular folk song “The Old Gray Mare,” Lady Suffolk was 14 years old at the time but still in top form. Her owner, David Bryan, sent her on a long walk from Long Island to Saratoga in early August to compete at the new upstate track. Upon her arrival at Saratoga, Lady Suffolk took on a bay gelding named Moscow in a best-of-five series of one-mile heats. The Old Gray Mare won the first two heats with ease before receiving a strong challenge from Moscow in the third. The Herald reported that the horses “moved at a rate which I have never seen equaled.” Moscow owned a slight lead coming toward the finish, but “within 15 rods of the stand, he made a terrible bad break, and consequently the mare beat him by a neck.”
There were four more days of trotting competition before the State Fair officially opened in September. Former US presidents Martin Van Buren and John Tyler, as well as a future president, Millard Fillmore, attended the festivities, which included five additional days of racing. Generally overlooked by historians is the fact that the State Fair included Saratoga’s first official Thoroughbred race. On September 16, 1847, Lady Digby defeated Disowned and Hopeful in three straight heats in a contest for “running horses.”
Although the 1847 races had great historical significance, they did little to advance Saratoga as a racing community. Over the next 16 years, the sport’s presence in the village was intermittent and underwhelming. That, of course, all changed in 1863, thanks to Morrissey. Saratoga would never be the same again.