Saratoga was founded by a boxing, criminal senator called Old Smoke
Born John Morrissey in 1831, Old Smoke was an Irish American bare-knuckle boxer and the leader of a New York criminal gang called the Dead Rabbits. By the age of 18 he had been charged for burglary, assault and battery, and assault with intent to kill, and later he was charged with murder. Before he founded Saratoga Racetrack, Old Smoke became a pro boxer after a street brawl won him a fierce reputation. In the 1850s, he became a Democratic State Senator and U.S. Congressman from New York, and in 1863 he founded Saratoga Racetrack, the start of a gambling empire which eventually included 16 casinos. Old Smoke quit politics in 1878, reportedly disgusted by the corruption in Washington.
Saratoga is not America’s oldest racetrack
Saratoga is often called America’s oldest racecourse, or even its oldest sporting venue. But though it opened over 150 years ago, Saratoga is only America’s fourth oldest racetrack. The first events at Saratoga occurred on on August 3, 1863, meaning Freehold, Fair Grounds and Pleasanton all predate Saratoga. The true oldest racetrack in America, Freehold, was running horse-racing events in the 1830s, three decades before Saratoga Racetrack was dreamt up by its boxing senator founder in 1863.
Saratoga is known as the “Graveyard of Champions” (not literally!)
Saratoga’s threatening-sounding nickname, “Graveyard of champions”, is less ominous than it sounds. Saratoga events have a reputation for toppling champions. Saratoga proved the downfall of Man o’ War in 1919; the only loss of his 21-race career. In 1930 Gallant Fox, the second Triple Crown winner in history, was beaten by Jim Dandy, a 100-1 outsider, by three lengths at Saratoga. And weeks after winning the 1973 Triple Crown, Secretariat lost the Whitney Stakes to a little-known horse called Onion at Saratoga. And if you think all this Graveyards of Champions stuff is ancient history, think again. As recently as 2015, freshly-minted winner of the Triple Crown American Pharoah came in second at the Travers Stakes held at Saratoga.
Also though, literally
But in fact, the term “Graveyard of Champions” is true for another reason. At least four racehorses are buried close to the track at Saratoga. Fourstardave, a beloved gelding who won at least one race at Saratoga every year for eight consecutive years, Mourjane (IRE), an Irish turf runner, and A Phenomenon are buried in the Clare Court area of Saratoga. Go For Wand, who so horrifically broke down in the Breeder’s Cup in 1990, is buried in the infield of the racetrack.
Saratoga Race Course has featured in many movies and books…
Saratoga’s distinctive, historic premises has been featured in many movies, including Seabiscuit, Saratoga, The Horse Whisperer, Billy Bathgate, Ghost Story, and My Old Man. In Guys and Dolls, the mid-century technicolor musical starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra, Adelaide (played by Vivian Blaine) sings “When they get on that train to Niagara and she can hear church bells chime, the compartment is air conditioned and the mood sublime…then they get off at Saratoga for the fourteenth time!” A scene in Ian Fleming’s “Diamonds are Forever” sees James Bond betting on a race at Saratoga after receiving a tip from a dubious mobster called Shady Tree.
…and even a Carly Simon song
Saratoga is even referenced in Carly Simon’s 1972 smash hit You’re So Vain, with the line “Well I hear you went to Saratoga/ And your horse, naturally, won”. It shows how much of a cultural icon Saratoga Race Course has become – as well as its association with American high society.
To find out more about Saratoga Race Course, and how to bet on Saratoga races, click here.