It’s the question asked by most Saratoga Race Course first-timers who peer past the horses thundering down the stretch: Why is there a canoe in the infield lake? The answer? Well, even us longtime Saratogians aren’t quite sure.
Indeed, no one really knows how long the vessel has been a Saratoga icon. In 1959, the New York Herald Tribune’s Bill Laudner wrote that the canoe had been in the lake since the 19th century, but there is no other known documentation to support the claim. Saratoga track superintendent Anne Clare told Laudner she’d been at the track since 1927, and the canoe was already in its customary place when she got there and took over its upkeep.
While no one alive remembers the canoe’s origin story, that hasn’t stopped sportswriters from making guesses—both serious and not so—through the years.
In 1939, Jack “Peerless” McGrath mused that the “famous blue canoe…according to legend, provides transportation for bettors who guess wrong back to the metropolitan track at the end of the season, by way of the Hudson River.” Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post said: “There was a pale blue canoe, mysteriously moored and motionless in the middle of the tideless lake in the infield. It is there they say if a horse-player decides to drown himself and changes his mind.”
Indeed, the only detail these creative speculations could agree upon was the color of the canoe. So why is the canoe no longer blue? That one, we can answer.
By 1962, the light blue canoe had already been a part of the track’s history for at least several decades. But in that year the vessel became associated forevermore with the Travers Stakes: After Beau Prince won the 1961 Midsummer Derby, the canoe was removed from the lake and painted in the “devil’s red and blue” colors of the winning Calumet Farm before being reintroduced to Saratoga patrons on opening day the following year.
As it turned out, the fresh coat of paint rankled at the delicate sensibilities of many traditionalists.
“I regret to report that the canoe in the infield lake is no longer painted blue,” David Alexander wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in 1962. “Nobody seems to know where this canoe came from originally…Its mere presence has proved certain things of earth are sacred and indestructible…It is in our harried world, one of the few traditions that remain.”
But while longtime Saratogians were upset over the 1962 color change, they got a bit of a reprieve thanks to the result of that year’s Travers, which was won by George D. Widener’s Jaipur, racing colors: blue. (Yup, even light blue—mostly.) Shortly after the Travers, the canoe was removed from the lake and repainted. “Monday morning, the newly painted canoe was launched and the faces broke into a wide grin because the canoe was a light blue, the same as it had been for years and years, with one slight addition—there were several bands of dark blue on the sides,” read an article in The Saratogian. “Now everyone is happy. Tradition has prevailed. Even the swans appear satisfied; they circled the canoe in formation as though they were saluting an old friend. The moral—don’t fool with tradition.”
The practice of annually painting the canoe in the colors of the Travers winner eventually became accepted and embraced by the Spa crowd, even when the 2012 Travers resulted in a dead heat between Godolphin Racing’s Alpha and Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket. The following year, for the first time, Saratoga’s little infield lake became the home of two canoes.
What color will the canoe be this year? That, too, we can answer. Keep an eye out for the maroon and white colors of Winchell Thoroughbreds, whose Epicenter won the 2022 edition of the Midsummer Derby. And mark your calendars: The next Travers winner—and the next era of the legendary Saratoga canoe—will be decided on August 26.