Already famous for its mineral baths, Saratoga held its first thoroughbred meet just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Staged by gambler, casino owner, ex-boxing champion and future Congressman John “Old Smoke” Morrissey and beginning on August 3, 1863, the four-day meet drew thousands of locals and tourists who saw Lizzie W. defeat Captain Moore in the best-of-three series of races.
Emboldened by the success of that first meet, Morrissey promptly enlisted his friends John R. Hunter, William Travers and Leonard Jerome to form the Saratoga Association. Its first responsibility was the construction of a new, permanent grandstand on the current site of Saratoga Race Course. Across the street, the “old course” became the barn area known as Horse Haven, with the vestiges of the original track still encircling the stables.
While the summer meet routinely drew weekday crowds of more than 10,000 during the 1950’s, there was concern that the Greater New York Association, formed in 1955, would run a concurrent meet downstate. In April, 1957, Gov. Averill Harriman signed into law a bill that prohibited a simultaneous downstate meet and also guaranteed a minimum of 24 days of racing at the Spa. In 1963, the construction of the Northway improved automotive access to the track from the New York State Thruway in Albany.
Named one of the world’s great sporting venues by Sports Illustrated, the past comes alive every summer in the historic grandstand as guests experience not only the best in thoroughbred racing, but the unmatched ambience and charm of Saratoga Springs.
Although some may quibble with the order, it’s no wonder that Saratoga’s motto is “Health, history, and horses.”
By Brien Bouyea
It was two years before the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude was ratified when an unlikely individual pulled off an even more unlikely endeavor that forever altered the course of history for Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Exactly one month after the Battle of Gettysburg, a 32-year-old former bare-knuckle boxing champion named John Morrissey moved on his seemingly illogical plot of presenting the first organized thoroughbred race meet in Saratoga. It was August 1863, and the Civil War was tearing America apart during Abraham Lincoln’s first term as president.
The odds were against Morrissey for several reasons. Organized horse racing in America was at a standstill because of the war. Even finding enough quality thoroughbreds to stage the meet was problematic because the Union had requisitioned just about every horse it could find for the war effort.
Morrissey, however, was a daring and determined individual with a history of proving people wrong. He proceeded undeterred. His entrepreneurial vision, moxie and sheer will were traits that served him well.
On Saturday, Aug. 14, 1847, Saratoga entrepreneurs George Cole and Alfonso Patten opened the Saratoga Trotting Course. The inaugural race was won by the immortal Lady Suffolk, known as “The Old Gray Mare” in Stephen Foster’s folk song.
Racing was sporadic in Saratoga during the years between 1847 and 1863. Several small courses came and went, although the Saratoga Trotting Grounds remained. Morrissey arrived in Saratoga in the early 1860s and opened a gambling house on Matilda Street, now Woodlawn Avenue. He saw the opportunity to supplement his income through racing.
The charade of staging illegal race meets under the guise of a carnival, or labeling contests as speed exhibitions, was a thing of the past. Morrissey wasn’t hiding anything. An advertisement in the Daily Saratogian proclaimed as much: “Running Races! AT SARATOGA.” Two races were carded each day from Aug. 3-to-6, 1863. The curtain had risen on thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.
convinced the top sportsmen in the country to back his meet. “All sections of the North and West, and some portions of the South will be represented by their best horses, and Canada will also contend for some of the various purses,” Morrissey said in his advertisement. “Excellent racing is anticipated.”
A crowd of more than 3,000 attended opening day. Admission was $1. They watched the races from carriages, as there was no grandstand. A dark bay filly named Lizzie W. won the first contest of Morrissey’s thoroughbred meet by defeating the heralded colt Captain Moore in a best-of-three sweepstakes. More than 15,000 people attended the four days of racing. Lizzie W. capped the proceedings with another victory in the meet’s final contest. Morrissey had delivered a winner. The Spirit of the Times said Morrissey’s meet “laid the foundation for a great fashionable race meeting at the Springs” and added “the formation of a competent club, and further proceedings, would seem to be a matter of course.”
Morrissey moved quickly to build upon his success. He purchased 94 acres across the street from the Saratoga Trotting Grounds to construct Saratoga Race Course almost immediately after the conclusion of his inaugural meet. The original course was converted to a training track, which is still in use today and known as Horse Haven. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt helped underwrite the cost of the new racecourse, while Morrissey brought in William R. Travers, Leonard Jerome and John Hunter to lend prestige to the new Saratoga Association.
The only place Morrissey was silent was in the official documentation. He owned the majority of the stock in the Saratoga Association and presided over the new track with an iron fist, but his name wasn’t on the books. Morrissey understood that his project would be more widely accepted if men such as Travers and Jerome were fronting the operation.
Saratoga Race Course opened August 2, 1864. The first race was the inaugural running of the Travers Stakes. It was won by the great racehorse Kentucky, owned in partnership by Travers, Hunter and Osgood. Kentucky became the track’s first equine hero, as he also won the first two editions of the prestigious Saratoga Cup.
A new era of racing excellence had been ushered in. The track was popular from the beginning and is now regarded as a pillar in the sport. Today, more than 150 years after Morrissey’s inaugural meet, Saratoga Race Course stands as the oldest active sporting venue in the country. It remains the standard by which all of American racing is measured.
One of those classic Saratoga showdowns loomed in the 1962 Travers Stakes as a pair of elite colts— Jaipur and Ridan—prepared to slug it out for supremacy in the 3-year-old division. It was a typical warm August afternoon with a typical Spa Saturday crowd of 26,183 in attendance for the 93rd running of one of the nation's longest-running races.
Nothing about the race, however, was typical. Nothing about the Travers ever is typical.
George D. Widener’s Jaipur won the Flash and Hopeful at the Spa the summer before and was riding a five-race win streak—including a victory in the Belmont—entering the 1962 Travers. Mrs. Moody Jolley’s Ridan was also an established commodity thanks to wins in the Florida Derby, Arlington Classic and Blue Grass Stakes earlier in the year.
Lined up next to each other, Jaipur and Ridan both broke well from the gate and quickly engaged in an epic confrontation that spanned 1¼ miles around the famed Spa oval. Under Manuel Ycaza, Ridan took a half-length lead into the first turn, but the menacing presence of Jaipur and Bill Shoemaker lurked right behind.
There was minuscule separation between the two colts on the backstretch. Neither foe was willing to concede even an inch. Ridan carried Jaipur wide on the final turn, but Jaipur was unfazed as they thundered down the stretch in one of the most thrilling races Saratoga has ever hosted. As the tension reached a fever pitch in the final strides, Jaipur extended himself just enough to sneak his nose past the finish line ahead of Ridan in a photo finish for the ages.
Jaipur had broken Man o’ War’s 42-year-old stakes record and in the process essentially wrapped up the 3-year-old division championship.
The 1962 Travers is regarded by many historians as one of the greatest races in American history, but the Travers has a long legacy of producing thrilling results. From its inaugural running in 1864 to the thrilling dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket in 2012 and Keen Ice’s dramatic win in 2015, the Travers Stakes is annually one of the premier events on the American racing calendar.
Several of the 19th century’s top horses won the Travers, including Hall of Famers Harry Bassett (1871), Duke of Magenta (1878), Hindoo (1881) and Henry of Navarre (1894). The fourth edition of the Travers, in 1867, was won by Hall of Famer Ruthless. She was the first of three fillies—along with Liza (1895) and Lady Rotha (1915)—to win the Travers.
The Travers was not run in 1896, 1898, 1899 and 1900 because of financial reasons.
And yet, the Travers has produced many memorable results. Here are some:
Brien Bouyea is Communications Officer at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga. He also served as sports editor of The Saratogian and a reporter for The Troy Record.
A salute to some of the giants of the announcer’s booth, who have conveyed the magic and pageantry of racing at NYRA tracks for more than 90 years.
“(He was) a joyous, jovial, verbose and vibrant man who was absolutely certain that he was the best broadcaster of horse races who ever lived. He would have resented being called an egotist. In his ebullient way, it never occurred to him that he could be wrong about anything. Usually, he wasn’t.”
– The New York Times on NYRA’s 1930s-era race caller Bryan Field in a 1968 tribute –
Bryan Field was a sportswriter covering boxing, baseball, and track and field when The New York Times named him its turf writer in 1928. Knowing little about horse racing, he caught on quickly by taking a second job as a stablehand, arriving each dawn at the track to groom and hot-walk horses. By 1931, Field had mastered racing well enough to launch a broadcasting career—calling the races at Belmont Park and other New York tracks, and eventually broadcasting the Triple Crown, on radio and then television, through 1962.
Fred “Cappy” Capossela
“I try to avoid hysteria. My job is that of a reporter.”
– Fred “Cappy” Capossela –
Legend has it that in 1991 Fred “Cappy” Capossela said to his son, “It is now post time,” and died a short time later. How fitting that Capossela used the signature phrase he made famous as NYRA’s head race caller for 37 years and as the “Voice of the Triple Crown” from 1950 to 1960 on CBS Television and Radio. Capossela’s commanding knowledge and cadence were standards at NYRA tracks from the 1930s through his retirement 1971; so were his prodigious memory and unerring accuracy. Capossela said he never called the races by numbers, but by memorizing the colors of the silks—thousands of them each year.
“They’re on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along. The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine. Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn! Sham is dropping back. It looks like they’ll catch him today, as My Gallant and Twice a Prince are both coming up to him now. But Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses! Secretariat is in a position that seems impossible to catch!”
– Chic Anderson calling the 1973 Belmont Stakes, won by Secretariat –
Charles “Chic” Anderson, the voice of NYRA from 1977 until his untimely death in 1979, was the voice of the Triple Crown and generally acknowledged as the best race caller of his time. Before joining NYRA, Anderson called races at Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and Oaklawn, among others.
“And down the stretch they come!”
– Dave Johnson –
Dave Johnson’s signature call during his tenure as NYRA race caller from 1972 to 1977 was straightforward and dramatic, and is still among the most recognizable calls in sports. Johnson portrayed himself as Belmont Park’s race caller in the 2007 film Ruffian.
“Headed into the stretch … Conquistador Cielo has complete control of this field by about five lengths. Linkage (is) on the outside, High Ascent on the inside, those two now heads apart. Gaining ground on the rail is Illuminate. On the outside, here comes Gato Del Sol. But they’re far as Conquistador Cielo (has) complete control of this Belmont Stakes (and) has the field by 15 lengths, maybe 20 lengths! Gato Del Sol is second.”
– Marshall Cassidy calling the stretch run of the 1982 Belmont Stakes –
Throughout the 1980s, Marshall Cassidy was the silky-smooth voice of NYRA, noted for his accuracy and even-keeled delivery. “There is a lot of emotion of what he is seeing,” Cassidy once said of the typical racing guest. “He doesn’t need to hear a cheerleader whooping it up for horse he hasn’t bet on.” Cassidy later worked as a racing steward.
“Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000! But Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been 26 years; it’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes!”
– Tom Durkin calling the 2004 Belmont Stakes –
It was said that Tom Durkin’s calling was calling races. While there isn’t much debate that Durkin is among the best race callers in history, race fans prefer to discuss their favorite Durkin call.
Some cite the famous Belmont Stakes 2004 stretch run, referenced above. For others, it’s the call describing Rachel Alexandra’s stirring victory in the 2008 Woodward Stakes. Or it’s “Arrrrrr”—the name of a horse and not a misprint. Or it could be “Yakahickamickadola” from a 1989 Durkin call at Hialeah Race Course—the pronunciation changes throughout the race—which became a YouTube hit.
According to estimates, Durkin called 80,000 races in his 43-year career, 24 of which he spent at NYRA. From 1984 to 2005, Durkin called races at the Breeders’ Cup, and from 2001 for the next decade, gained further fame as the voice of the Triple Crown. Less known was his long-term commitment to the Backstretch Employees Service Team as a board member, fund raiser and regular bingo-night caller. For his career-long dedication, Durkin was awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2015.
“They’re into the stretch, and American Pharoah makes his run for glory as they come into the final furlong. Frosted is second. With one-eighth of a mile to go, American Pharoah’s got a two-length lead. Frosted is all out at the sixteenth pole. And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”
– Larry Collmus calling American Pharoah’s 2015 Belmont Stakes victory to become the 12th Triple Crown winner –
“He’s just perfect! And now he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner! Justify has done it!”
– Collmus calling Justify’s 2018 Belmont Stakes victory to become the 13th Triple Crown winner –
NYRA’s race caller from 2014 to 2020, Larry Collmus is the voice of the Triple Crown on NBC. An NBC Television audience of 22 million caught his epic call in the 2015 Belmont Stakes in which American Pharoah captured the first Triple Crown in 37 years.
“In a sense, this is a job for which I’ve been preparing for years. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by incredible race callers during my career. I learned from all of them and these lessons live with me to this day.”
– John Imbriale on being NYRA race caller and track announcer in January 2020 –
Horse racing does not have a sixth man award like the NBA, but if it did NYRA would have named it after John Imbriale. Starting at NYRA to 1979 when he won a New York Daily News contest which gave him the opportunity to call a race and work with the NYRA press office, Imbriale has been an invaluable jack-of-all-trades.
Imbriale became Tom Durkin’s backup in 1990 and has since been part of NYRA’s race-calling team at all three tracks ever since. Along the way, the Queens native took on other responsibilities at NYRA, working with Harvey Pack on the popular Inside Racing program, and also behind the scenes in a variety of roles within NYRA TV, most recently as NYRA’s Director of Television Production.
“Frank Wright, Charlsie Cantey, Harvey Pack, Marshall Cassidy, Tom Durkin … I learned from all of them,” said Imbriale. “Tom taught me that the race makes the call. It’s not the other way around. He also told me not to listen to him calling a race because he believed it was important for a race caller to have his own style.”
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