Reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ at Saratoga, 1946

Jul 26th 2013 12:28 am |

Saratoga Race Course reopened in 1946 after wartime travel restrictions closed the track from 1943 to 1945. The country was exiting the deadliest conflict in human history but horse players and racing fans at Saratoga, returning after a 3-year hiatus, had put that behind them. When they came back in 1946, they had to come to terms with significant changes at their beloved Spa.

New York was the last significant bastion of “legal” on-track bookmaking in the United States and among the last holdouts to the new “totalisator”, or pari-mutuel, machines. The machines were installed at Saratoga in 1940 and put the final nail in the coffin for New York bookmakers. The new machines also represented the impending end to the broader gambling culture outside of the racetrack that had been integral to the Saratoga scene for over a century.

There is no such thing as the “good old days” but that has never stopped writers from using it as an inspiration for articles and books that are easily passed over when published but destined to become useful sources for future historians. That is exactly what I found in the pages of the August 1946 edition of the Turf & Sport Digest by an obscure writer named Norman B. Wiltsey.1  He whiffed on a few of the facts, but his recollections offer a fascinating look at what represented Saratoga nostalgia seventy years ago.

Here is how Mr. Wiltsey recalled the ‘good old days’ of the Spa looking backwards from 1946:

“Come August, we go back to Saratoga!”

That’s the good word around the metropolitan horse parks this summer, across the tables at Toots Shor’s and Lindy’s.2 Once again the regulars will enjoy hearty Saratoga cooking amidst the cool lake breezes, and already they’re looking forward to the delightful prospect. The boys are wondering too if the quaint old town will ever be the same as in years past. Saratoga, you see, was different from any other race town in the country. How was it different? Let’s reminisce a little and see if it doesn’t all come back to you…

…Remember the crackling excitement of Opening Day? The old cabby with his lovingly groomed steed and shiny yellow surrey who drove you out to the track in style for modest sum of fifty cents?

…Hokum? Sure – but the kind you get a sneaky bang out of in spite of all your modern cynicism. Each time the bugle called the field to the post for the initial event of a brand-new season, my heart jumped into my throat and stuck there until the first straining velvety muzzle hit the wire.

…the red-letter afternoon when Whirlaway came roaring through the pack from last place to first to win the 1940 Special3 — with my room-rent riding on his aristocratic nose. A horse player touches immortality in a moment like that!

Next memorable – at least to me – were the long lazy evenings with the crowds ambling slowly along Main Street. Some folks clustered around the newsstands, reading the late pink racing edition of the Saratogian and discussing next day’s entries. Others jammed the Western Union office, wiring for fresh money or waiting hopefully for answer to previous desperate pleas for dough…

The 'incredible and garish' Piping Rock Club in Saratoga (Boston Public Library)

The ‘incredible and garish’ Piping Rock Club in Saratoga (Boston Public Library)

If you were one of the lucky ones that had hit a juicy winner or two during the afternoon, you might be out at Arrowhead4 eating a charcoal broiled steak and listening to Ben Bernie and all the lads5 making sweet magic with Star Dust and Melancholy Baby.6 Or – if the bankroll had swelled to agreeable proportions – you might have been found at garish and incredible Piping Rock, gazing sentimentally though the champagne bubbles at your lady-love while Helen Morgan suffered interminably through My Bill7

The real race crowd, however; owners, trainers, jockeys, professional players, favored Uncle Tom Luther’s White Sulphur Hotel8. The food and drink and the accompanying bull sessions at Uncle Tom’s friendly hostelry on the lake were justly famous in sporting circles throughout the nation…

White Sulphur Hotel on the lakefront in Saratoga.  Seen here around 1910. (Library of Congress)

White Sulphur Hotel on the lakefront in Saratoga. Seen here around 1910. (Library of Congress)

The old order of things had changed, the atmosphere seemed charged with indefinable sadness. The iron men were installed at the historic Union Avenue course, and Long Tom Shaw9 with all the others of the odds-laying gentry (bookmakers) had packed their slates and left for parts unknown. No more would the big-time operators bet them fistfuls of large coarse bills on the horse in almost every race. Al Jolson,10 who once won the price of a fair-sized yacht on Colonel Bradley’s corking mare, Black Helen.11

Lìttle Tommy Meade, the show player, who had run a twenty-dollar bill into a twenty-grand bankroll before his handicap figures betrayed him and he finally “tapped out” on a filly named Handcuff.12 Something like six thousand dollars remained in his poke and that was the amount Tommy shoved in for third on this beetle who looked to outclass her small field by a brace of city blocks. She straggled in last with Tommy watching at the rail. He stood quietly there for a few minutes after the finish was posted on the board. Finally he shrugged shoulders, grinned, and strolled away lighting a cigarette. Tommy remarked to friend that evening that “he’d had it coming to him – only a sucker would bet six grand on a female!”

…Quite a village, the Saratoga of those days. It exemplified a way of life that almost certainly will not come again. A whole colorful philosophy, best illustrated in the words of carefree Tommy Meade:

“A damn fine life, mister! Swell friends, swell times, an’ horses in the sun. What if you do die broke? You started off the same way, didn’t you?”

It’s easy to look back and mourn things lost. It’s better for the spirit to look back and be thankful for good things that remain. While things at Saratoga have changed dramatically since 1946, one thing hasn’t changed.  Days spent there are indeed a ‘damn fine life.’

Sources, News, and…now with Footnotes!

You might have noticed that I added a way to create linked footnotes for the site. If you hover over the number of the footnote, you can see additional information. You can click on footnotes throughout the quote and easily click back to your location in the article from the footnote section at the bottom of the page. The footnotes are for readers who enjoy the minutiae of history as much as I do.

Norman B. Wiltsey, “Back to Saratoga,” Turf and Sport Digest, August 1946

Information in the footnotes has been sourced from the usual suspects: Wikipedia, Pedigree Query, and Google searches.

  1. One of the few references I could find to Norman Wiltsey was to a sci-fi writer with a bibliography covering the early 1950s. Not certain its our guy but it seems likely. []
  2. Toot’s Shor and Lindy’s were two well known establishments in mid-town Manhattan that attracted celebrities and the ‘sporting crowd.’ []
  3. Appears to be an error in memory, Whirlaway won from last to first in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in 1940. He paid $2.30 to win. []
  4. Arrowhead is referred on this site as a ‘nightclub and gambling casino.’ []
  5. Ben Bernie was a radio personality and band leader active in the 1920s and 1930s. His band was called ‘The Lads’. When the author refers to musicians and performers in this article, I assume he is speaking about watching live performances. []
  6. Two big band standards of the 1920s and 1930s []
  7. Helen Morgan was an actress and singer who performed on Broadway and appeared in films. She was known as a heavy drinker. Here is Helen Morgan from the 1936 film Show Boat performing ‘Bill‘. It seems the author had the title wrong, adding ‘My’ to the title. The Piping Rock was allegedly mob-owned and burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1954. []
  8. Uncle Luther sold the White Sulpher Hotel in 1940 and it was torn down in 1957. []
  9. In articles from the era, Tom Shaw is referred to as the ‘Dean of Bookmakers.’ He had the unfortunate luck to be at the top of his game when New York finally cleared tracks of bookmaking. []
  10. Al Jolson was a singer, comedian, and film star best known for his headlining role in the 1927 Jazz Singer the first ‘talking picture’ []
  11. Black Helen was the winner of the 1935 Coaching Club American Oaks and the champion 3-year-old filly that same year. Her mother was the legendary mare La Troienne. Colonel Bradley is Edward R. Bradley prominent owner of the 1920s and 1930s. []
  12. Handcuff was a filly owned by C.V. Whitney. She won the 1938 Alabama. I couldn’t find her past performances so I can’t identify the race that Mr. Meade lost his shirt []

Filed in Saratoga,saratoga crowds,Saratoga Race Course

2 Responses to “Reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ at Saratoga, 1946”

  1. Erwin says:

    Enjoyed the article, and the pop-up footnotes are a nice touch.

    More reminiscences of “the good old days” can be read in “Across the Board” by Toney Betts, published in 1956. Betts (a nom de plume, his real name was Anthony Zito – don’t know if he was related to Nick Zito), was turf writer for the New York Daily Mirror, among others. He hated, hated, HATED the pari-mutuel system – called the totalizator the “totalitarian-ator”. As a writer he was no Joe Palmer or Charles Hatton, but he was good enough.

  2. Laura Martin says:

    A true account of nostalgia! Change is inevitable but knowing the old times is interesting, what Saratoga offered in those days a perfect leisure recreation races, country food, bull fights, after race meets and more. A lot has changed but the time spent there will always be there!