W.C. Whitney and the Saratoga Revival, 1902

Aug 3rd 2011 10:00 pm |

One of the greatest traditions in horse racing is the naming of stakes races to honor the sport’s major contributors. In an era where the owners of major sports stadiums sell the naming rights to the highest bidder, the long-standing tradition of naming stakes is a refreshing tradition in one of the few sports remaining that retains respect for its history.

This Saturday, the Whitney Stakes will be run at Saratoga Race Course. The race is named in honor of  William Payne Whitney, whose father, William Collins Whitney, revived the Spa from one of the lowest points in its history.

Members of the Whitney family have been long-standing members of racing’s elite. While the family’s contributions are many, their most significant achievement came in 1900 when W.C. Whitney, with a group of other influential racing men, purchased the Saratoga Association and saved it from one of its darkest periods.

From 1892 until 1900, Saratoga was under the ownership and control of notorious bookmaker Gottfried Walbaum. Walbaum had been one of the owners of a well-known outlaw track, Guttenburg in New Jersey, until it closed in 1893. With his ownership, he brought the same corruption to Saratoga that shut down not only Guttenburg but all racing in the state of New Jersey. During this period, he owned the track and ran the bookmaking operation.  He also owned a number of illegal pool rooms (off-track betting facilities) in New York and New Jersey. Walbaum’s all-consuming self-interest nearly drove the track to ruin.

In 1900, when a group led by William Collins Whitney acquired Saratoga from Walbaum and his partners, hope for a renewal to the glory days of racing returned. Whitney and his cohorts agreed to only keep 5% of the profits and return all other money back into the operations of the track. The days of running Saratoga under a strict proprietary model where the owner used it to line his pockets and those of his cronies ended.

By 1902, Whitney had figuratively washed the dirt of corruption from the track and brought respect back to the race course at Saratoga Springs.  That same year, an article in Munsey’s Magazine described what Whitney meant to Saratoga:

Small wonder that the [1902] twenty-two day meeting of the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses eclipsed any race meet ever held in this country. William Collins Whitney, the foremost American patron of the thoroughbred, and his confrere, all representative of the highest type of American sportsmen and gentlemen, had expended a sum estimated at a quarter of a million dollars in making the race course at the famous Spa a spot worthy to be called the “American Newmarket,” or, as Mr. Whitney himself preferred to style it, the “American Epsom.”

Standing at the head of the patrons of racing in this country, William C. Whitney had done more for the American thoroughbred than any other man. It was in December, 1900, that a syndicate with Mr. Whitney at the head purchased the race track property at Saratoga Springs…

…The meeting of 1901 came too soon for the new syndicate to carry out half of the plans which its energetic and far seeing president had in mind. Notwithstanding this paucity of time, many improvements were made, and the meeting was the most brilliant ever seen at the spa. With eleven months before them, the syndicate went to work with a will to prepare for the meeting of 1902. More land was purchased. The course was almost laid out anew. New stables, paddocks, and stands were erected regardless of expense. No pains were spared to beautify the course. Everywhere the master hand of Mr Whitney and his open purse were visible.

The Saratoga track was always a beautiful spot. Under the magic touch of its new owners it became a paradise.

And a paradise it remains, over one-hundred years later. It’s fitting that one of the biggest races on Saratoga’s schedule should be named for the family that has remained a positive force at the Spa for all these years.

Sources, News, and Notes

Joseph Freeman Marsten, “The Sport of Kings in America,” Munsey’s Magazine, November 1902

Details about Walbaum and his ownership of Saratoga from Steven Riess’s The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime.  I also used his concept of a “proprietary track” in explaining Walbaum’s ownership.  I will be reviewing Riess’s book in next week’s post.

Be sure to check out a recent article about the Guttenburg Race Track in the Hudson Reporter from author Damian De Virgilio.

In case you missed it, I also posted an update to last week’s post about Jim Dandy.

I will be in Saratoga for Hall of Fame weekend…can’t wait to get up there!

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Saratoga Race Course,thoroughbred racing history,Whitney Handicap,Whitney, William Collins,Whitney, William Payne

One Response to “W.C. Whitney and the Saratoga Revival, 1902”

  1. T.J. Connick says:

    Stumbled across a couple of old newspaper items making William C. Whitney the party for whom the race was named.

    W.C. Vreeland several times devoted space in his Brooklyn Daily Eagle column to praise the elder Whitney. His report on the inaugural in 1928 explained that the race was named for the subject of your enlightening tribute.

    Vreeland began filing turf reports shortly after they dropped anchor on the Mayflower, and was still pounding the typewriter in 1941. He knew Whitney and what he did for racing, particularly Saratoga racing. Vreeland may have been mistaken regarding the identity of the Whitney Stakes honoree, but he made a good case.