In every story—horse racing or otherwise—there’s a hero and there’s a villain. In this story, the hero is Richard T. Wilson, Jr., who led the restoration of Saratoga Race Course to its former glory in the early 1900s, and the villain is Gottfried Walbaum, who was largely responsible for the fact that the track needed saving.
After struggling for much of the 1890s because of the dysfunctional leadership of Walbaum, a nefarious character known for operating brothels and shady racing venues in New Jersey, Thoroughbred racing at the Spa was in a precarious position with diminished purses, a sagging quality of racing, and an overall lack of faith in the track’s future. Enter Wilson, a New York City native who began his association with racing as an owner in 1896 and went on to develop an extraordinary stable, winning the Preakness with The Parader in 1901 and both the Preakness and Belmont with Pillory in 1922. In 1900, Wilson sought out famed sportsmen William C. Whitney and Francis Hitchcock and presented them with a plan to purchase the track from Walbaum. With Whitney’s money paying for a whole slew of improvements (including a new grandstand, paddock and training track), Saratoga was once again poised to be held in high regard on the American sporting scene.
While both Whitney and Hitchcock headed up the new management team in the first decade of the new century, Wilson took over as president of the Saratoga Racing Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses in 1909, a position he held for the next 20 years. Writer Kent Hollingsworth said Wilson “had an innate love for the Spa and left no stone unturned to maintain it as the gayest resort in racing.”
The 1920s were a golden era of racing, aided by the emergence of great horses such as Man o’ War. But it was Wilson who rebuilt the Spa’s fine reputation in all areas of operation; he oversaw the construction of the present-day Clubhouse and Turf Terrace, and encouraged women owners with the introduction of the Lady Owners Handicap.
After Wilson fell ill and passed away in 1929 at the age of 63, Saratoga honored its esteemed leader with the Wilson Handicap, which was won by the likes of Hall of Famers Equipoise, Discovery and War Admiral before being discontinued in 1958. Today, the track pays homage to Wilson with the Wilson Chute, a configuration for one-mile dirt races located just beyond the 1863 Club that, though dismantled in 1972, was reintroduced prior to the 2022 Saratoga meeting.