Saratoga Opening Day, 1919

Jul 28th 2009 12:15 pm |

In 1953, the New York Times published an article that called horse racing the “King Of Sports.” About 40 years prior, the sport was nearly dead, less then 15 tracks were in operation following gambling bans throughout the country. Horse racing took a tremendous turn during the first half of the twentieth century. While it is difficult to identify any one moment where racing began its upswing, it is safe to say that 1919 was a turning point.

Image: Headline from Daily Racing Form, August 1, 1919

In 1919, the first World War war had ended, it was the eve of the Roaring Twenties, and a colt named Man o’ War hit the track. That year, Sir Barton won what would come to be known as the Triple Crown and the gelding Exterminator emerged as a superstar. Most importantly, the beginning of Prohibition signaled the last gasp for the floundering Progressive movement that spearheaded much of the anti-gambling sentiment that nearly killed racing in 1910. The “war” against gambling had subsided.

In 1919, the Washington Post published an article by handicapper Pack McKenna who wrote about the joys of playing the horses. Check the newspapers from the 1920s and you’ll see an increase in racing coverage. It is no coincidence that the New Yorker magazine hired a full time race writer in 1926 — a year after publishing its first issue. Racing’s move into the mainstream of popular culture had begun.

When Saratoga opened in 1919, the Daily Racing Form captured the spirit of the times in announcing the start of the summer meeting. The relief at the war’s end and the thrill of racing at the Spa is evident in the words of the anonymous writers for the Form.

Saratoga Race Course, circa 1919

On July 31 and August 1st, the Daily Racing Form wrote this in anticipation of opening day:

“The Saratoga course this season impressed the visitor as surpassing in appointment and beauty that of former years. Extensive additions have been built to the clubhouse section and the main grandstand has also come in for some alterations. The landscaping is exceedingly picturesque and park-like…”…With everything in thorough order to the minutest detail, the thousands of visitors now here from every part of the country are sharing eagerness with the many horsemen for the bugle call that will bring the horses to the barrier at the beautiful Saratoga track tomorrow and usher in what is conceded will be the greatest season of sport ever held here. Ideal conditions are in prospect for the opening weather sharps predicting that it will be fair. The track is in excellent condition and conducive to a repetition of last years record breaking performances…

“…Probably never before has eastern interest in racing reached the height it does at present. It has attracted many heretofore supposed staid business men and the finish of this racing season will find many converts to the sport if not actual participants as owners or part owners in some extensive racing strings…

“…The long looked forward to in the turf World is at hand. This afternoon the one greatest race meeting of the American turf opens at Saratoga. It will continue through every racing day of the month of August.”

On August 2nd, DRF reported on the events of the first racing day:

“An epoch in American racing was readied today at Saratoga when the most representative crowd that has ever witnessed the sport at one time thronged the beautiful and spacious grounds here to witness the opening of what will undoubtedly be the greatest term of racing ever conducted at even this most famous of American tracks.

“Numerically the crowd was far greater than that of opening day last year and there appeared more general activity but then the war was still on last year and there were many in the crowd this afternoon that made merry and took a keen interest in the sport who were engaged in far grimmer work ‘over there.’ Shifting clouds and an occasional rainfall during the early morning hours threatened to mar the opening but the weather improvement was steady and by noon the sun shone in all its brilliancy…

And yes, they did have racing, although it did take a back seat in DRF’s reporting on opening day. Purchase won the Saratoga Handicap and the filly Miss Jemima beat the colts in the prestigious Flash Stakes:

“Kentucky triumphed over the east in the first real clash of the Saratoga season when Miss Jemima duplicated with a better performance that of Billy Kelly last year in the Flash Stakes that brought out some crack colts and fillies.”True Miss Jemima did not run as fast as Billy Kelly did last year but she carried the steadier of 127 pounds eight more than did Billy Kelly and she conceded weight to all her opponents. Harry Payne Whitney’s Wildair regarded as one of the best in that establishment was favored by a twenty pound concession from the winner.

“The result of the race caused a reversal of the easterners hastily formed judgment as to Miss Jemima’s ability for she proved conclusively that she is a good filly and won like it…

“…Miss Jemima and Johnny Loftus were given an ovation on their return to the stand that lasted several minutes. From a monetary standpoint the prize did not call for much for the winners net share of the stakes only amounted to $2,750. Otto Stiefel who owns the filly came from St Louis expressly to witness her performance and was highly gratified by her showing….”

While Miss Jemima kicked off the two-year-old season at the Spa, she would be soon overshadowed by another two-year-old — Man 0′ War — who would race the following day.

Images: Cover of Saratoga racing program, 1919

The year 1919 was a significant year for racing and Saratoga. I will post additional stories about the Spa in 1919 over the next few weeks.


“Saratoga’s Banner Season,” Daily Racing Form, July 31, 1919
“Awaiting the Bugle Call,” Daily Racing Form, August 1, 1919
“Saratoga Racing Today,” Daily Racing Form, August 1, 1919
“Miss Jemima Victorious,” Daily Racing Form, August 2, 1919

Thanks to Ron Micetic for scanning his copy of the 1919 program seen here.

UPDATE: Check out this piece from Brooklyn Backstretch on Saratoga Then and Now

I mentioned this last week but….the online version of the DRF is an outstanding resource — check it out

Hard to believe that Saratoga is upon us. I am taking the plunge and heading up for Travers weekend. This years running could be epic — think it will be worth dealing with the crowd.

Monmouth will be my destination this weekend to watch Rachel A in the Haskell. Should be exciting — hope to see you there!


Filed in Miss Jemima,Saratoga opening day,Saratoga Race Course,thoroughbred racing history

One Response to “Saratoga Opening Day, 1919”

  1. The_Knight_Sky says:

    The antique program reads:

    Saratoga Racing:

    of the

    Insert a big "sigh" emoticon here. 😉

    Good luck in Oceanport on Sunday.
    Figures to be a stellar racing card.

    Those can be difficult to decipher.
    Better take Mrs. Ghost.