Saratoga’s Racing Roots: How John Morrissey’s Bold Vision Turned The Spa City Into A Horse Racing Mecca

I never considered the historical significance of Saratoga Race Course when I went to the track as a kid. It was summer, school was out and my pre-adolescent brain wasn’t required to produce a lot of deep, contemplative thought. I knew the track was ancient, but that’s about all I knew. I sure liked it, though. The horses amazed me (they still do), the people were interesting to watch (they still are) and one day, I got Angel Cordero, Jr.’s autograph (which I still have). It was all so surreal and wondrous. I eventually became a sportswriter, and one of my first assignments was to develop a package of history pieces on the racetrack. Sounded like fun! That’s when it hit me—I didn’t know a single relevant thing that would be helpful in crafting a series of such narratives. Well, I knew Cordero was good, but it didn’t take a genius to figure that one out.

John Morrissey, who’s credited with bringing horse racing to Saratoga Springs, was a champion bare-knuckle boxer and later, a politician. (Library of Congress)

So I hit the books. My reading list included Such Was Saratoga by Hugh Bradley, The Noble Animals by Landon Manning, They’re Off!: Horse Racing At Saratoga by Edward Hotaling and Foundations of Fame by Michael Veitch, all of which remain on my shelf and should be required reading for any Saratoga racing aficionado. During my research, I kept coming across the name John “Old Smoke” Morrissey. Boy, had I been missing out. At first, Morrissey seemed like a fictional character. His story was that outrageous. An Irish immigrant who grew up in nearby Troy, Morrissey graduated from street brawling to the manly art of formal bare-knuckle boxing. He cracked a lot of heads, reigned as the American champion for five years and retired undefeated. With his pugilistic days in the past, Morrissey arrived in Saratoga Springs during the Civil War. Thoroughbred racing was on hold in the war-torn South, so Morrissey, only 32 years old at the time, thought he could prosper by conceiving and presiding over a racing meet at Saratoga. He was right. Taking place only a few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, Saratoga’s inaugural four-day meet in August 1863 was held at an old trotting track (known today as Horse Haven) and was a resounding success.

But Morrissey wasn’t done yet. He went bigger—much bigger. With the backing of some prominent sportsmen, Morrissey opened Saratoga Race Course across the street from the trotting grounds on August 2, 1864. The first race was the Travers Stakes, won by a mighty colt named Kentucky. A week later, at the conclusion of the first season at the new track, The New York Times reported: “Brilliant as had been the previous portion of the Saratoga meeting, it ‘culminated in a blaze of glory’ on Saturday, the concluding day. The grand stand was a superb array of beauty and fashion, the like of which has never previously been seen in America, and has only been paralleled by Ascot or Goodwood, in England, on a Royal Cup day.”

In the years following Saratoga Race Course’s opening, Morrissey became a two-term United States Congressman and then was twice elected to the New York State Senate. Even with his political commitments, Morrissey maintained his majority ownership stake in the track and oversaw its continued success. After becoming ill while campaigning for his second term in the Senate, Morrissey died of pneumonia on May 1, 1878, at The Adelphi Hotel. He was only 47. A lot of great names have followed Morrissey into Saratoga lore: Travers, Whitney and Vanderbilt…Man o’ War, Native Dancer and Secretariat…trainers “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and Bob Baffert, jockeys Eddie Arcaro and the aforementioned Cordero, among countless others. They owe John Morrissey a debt of gratitude for his vision and resolve. We all do. I’m glad I opened those books all those years ago. What I found was truly extraordinary. Truly.

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