Saratoga and the “50-cent aristocrat,” 1902

Aug 3rd 2012 08:00 am |

Few places in sports inspire the deserved reverence that has surrounded Saratoga Race Course for over a century. Occupying the same ground since 1863, its vaunted status among the racing crowd has become nearly universal.

One of the primary reasons for the love surrounding the Spa is the track’s timeless qualities. While the fashion and technology has changed, elements of one-hundred year-old descriptions of the track still ring true today.

For this year’s first Saratoga post (a few weeks late), I decided to look to 1902. That is the year we wrote about last year. It’s the year W.C. Whitney’s ownership group finalized their initial plan to revive the track from nearly a decade of corrupt ownership. The modern Saratoga in all its glory came to be in 1902. It has been in a seemingly perpetual state of “good old days” ever since.

The 1902 article I found in the New York Evening World captures some of the parallels between past and present but also highlights some pieces that are missing from the modern scene. At its core, the article captures the spirit that still makes Saratoga a great place. You can’t say that about the majority of pro sports venues in this day and age.

Here are some observations of Saratoga in 1902 (you can read the article in full here or read my selected excerpts below):

The real aristocrat of the Saratoga race track is the man who pays 50 cents to put the fence between himself and the outside world. A place is reserved for him, and in that place he is secure…It is this that makes the Saratoga race track different from any other in the United States.

The man of half-dollar calibre is the real thing here. His domain belongs to him exclusively. The fact that the half-dollar person is the aristocrat of the race track, constitute all that makes Saratoga the most democratic place where horses run for gain in America.

[Saratoga] is the grandstand, clubhouse and betting ring of the most representative race course in America.

It is different in Saratoga. Every day is a big race day here…

Given a setting of women such as this, a track so fast that the hoofs of horses spin over it like zephyrs, a vista of trees and grass and blue sky and drifting clouds; a breeze that fans the face with the perfume of pine, music to lull the ear, soft turf to tread upon, everything that money can buy within call — why should not the Saratoga race track be the spot where any man with red blood in his veins should desire to remain until driven away.”

The flattening of social status at Saratoga still stands to some extent today as it did in 1902. I have found that if you pay your way into the clubhouse, wear long pants and pass security guards with your eyes on your Form, there are few places that can’t be accessed at Saratoga.

Where the past diverges most from the present is in the system of wagering. Today, we are limited to the pari-mutuel system. One hundred years ago, reading about the chaos of the betting ring and its fixed odds makes one feel a slight tinge of nostalgia for the way it used to be. Here is how it was described in 1902:

In reality the hub of the Saratoga course is the betting ring. The 50-cent aristocrat has his betting ring all to himself. He make his four-dollar plunges on a long shot with the assurance that no hundred-dollar bettor is going to butt in and force down the odds. In the big ring the clubhouse and grandstand contingents mix, and one may wager of what is left out of a five-dollar bill after admission is paid next to that of one who bets his thousands.”

The amount of money that goes through the hands of the bookmaker on every race is almost appalling. There are many brokers on the Stock Exchange who have never done the business in a day that is done by individual pencillers in the Saratoga ring.”

There were rumors current yesterday of an impending fight between Eastern and Western bookmakers in the ring. Foolish rumor! Even bookmakers would not permit themselves to fight under the soothing influence that pervades the magnificent Saratoga race course.”

Saratoga is where even the cut throat gamblers can get along, such as it was in 1902, it still is in 2012. I’ll be in town with my buddy Chad on Travers weekend and can’t hardly wait. Hope to see you here!

Sources, news and notes

“Powers pictures the gay Saratoga racegoers,” New York Evening World, August 23, 1902

It has been a really busy summer in my non-racing life which is why this is the first post in a few weeks. Hoping that things slow down soon and I can post more regularly here. More importantly, I hope to get to a racetrack soon. My last track visit was for the Belmont Stakes…it’s been far too long.

Hope everyone is having a great summer. Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Saratoga,saratoga crowds,Saratoga Race Course



3 Responses to “Saratoga and the “50-cent aristocrat,” 1902”

  1. BART TALAMINI says:

    I BELIEVE THE GUTTENBERG RACETRACK WAS LOCATED IN NORTH BERGEN JUST SOUTH OF FAIRVIEW NJ IN WHAT IS CALLED TODAY THE NUNGESSER AREA.TODAY THE SECTION OF NORTH BERGEN IS STILL CALLED THE RACETRACK SECTION BY REAL ESTATE BROKERS WHEN SELLING PROPRETY I ALSO THINK THERE WAS A LITTLE CONEY ISLAND AMUSEMENT AREA THERE AS WELL. MY MOTHER WAS BORN IN FAIRVIEW THE NUNGESSER’S AREA IN 1908 AND SHE USED TO TELL MY BROTHER AND I ABOUT THIS AREA. MY GRANDFATHER HAD A PRODUCE STORE IN THE NUNGESSER’S HOTEL AND THE TALAMINI/COSTA FAMILY OWNED BUSES THAT LEFT THIS AREA FOR NEW YORK CITY AND JERSEY CITY UP UNTIL 1995

  2. ljk says:

    The 1863 meet was across Union Avenue at “horse haven”, so technically I’d say the track has occupied the same ground since 1984.

  3. ljk says:

    OR… 1864