The Saratoga Racing Scene, 1904

Jul 22nd 2014 09:05 pm |

Saratoga Race Course, circa 1900

“There is nothing stranger than this apparently unlimited capacity of Saratoga to absorb people.”

So wrote Louis McHenry Howe in a sprawling article simply titled “Saratoga Springs” for the June 1905 edition of The New England Magazine.

Howe grew up in Saratoga and lived quite an interesting life (read more here). He was an unknown freelance journalist (and sometimes newspaperman and budding political strategist) when he wrote the article for New England Magazine. Four years later, he left the writing business for good, and became a political advisor for Franklin D. Roosevelt. A position he held until he died in 1936.

Howe’s affection for Saratoga is clear in the article that spans thousands of years of history (seriously) and concludes (of course) with the summer racing scene.

In 1905, the first of August marked the start of the season. While the start date has changed, some of the scenes described by Howe are familiar. Here is how the Saratoga native wrote about racing days in his town over a century ago:

There are the long trains of Palace horse cars — your modern thoroughbred must travel in Equine Pullmans now-a-days — unloading their freight each morning; and there is the famous stable of John Sanford, thorough-going sportsman, who races like an old-time English squire [and] walks his horses over-land from Amsterdam, disdaining cars of any kind, and parades down Broadway, accompanied by a small army of stable boys…

…Groups of famous trainers are early on the ground; the faces of famous jockeys commanding princely salaries are seen at the palatial Saratoga Bath House where, by numerous visits to the hot chamber of the Turkish Bathroom, they reduce their weight…

…The cry of the newsboys selling the late racing editions of the New York papers brings [the new arrivals] out into the streets like magic. Around the entries posted in the hotel lobbies, a constantly changing throng discusses the merits of the horses. Famous bookmakers in secluded corners receive the reports of their track watchers, who for a week or more have been on hand, watching workouts and gleaning stable information. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the making or breaking of many a man hang on these whispered conferences…

…Outside the [race course] grounds, is an army of men and boys who have managed, by hanging on the brake beams, by occupying empty freight cars, by a hundred and one methods known to themselves, to reach Saratoga in time for the opening race day, and are selling that latest form of the gold brick, racing tips…

…Inside the gates a beautiful pine grove intervenes between the entrance and the grandstand; to the right, amid the cool shadows of the old forest monarchs lies the covered saddling paddock. They are saddling for the first race and a crowd of fashionable folk stand by, watching the gay-clad jockeys as they supervise the finishing touches which are being given to their mounts.

Horses of high degree are there: Delhi, Sysonby, Tanya, Artful, and the queens of the turf, Beldame and Molly Brandt, the latter the namesake of the Indian wife of old Sir William Johnson, whose visit to High Rock Spring brought modern Saratoga into being. Proud, well-groomed and thoroughbred to the bone, they are surrounded by human beings equally thoroughbred, well-groomed and famous, for all the notables of the turf world are present. The veteran, James R. Keene, a twinkle of delight in his bright, restless eyes, tries vainly to conceal a smile of satisfaction in his grizzled beard, as he surveys his splendid Delhi, and plans a raid upon the bookmakers presently that will compensate for many a Wall Street error.

August Belmont strokes the queenly Beldame’s glossy flanks: Sidney Paget, looking every inch the English gentleman, is talking to young Harry Whitney and [Herman] Duryea, whose faces are flushed with boyish pleasure as they look over their future futurity winner, Artful. The dames of high degree are likewise there, the beautiful Mrs. Clarence Mackay, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. Tommy Hitchcock, Mrs. John Sanford and all other lovers of good horses and the sport of kings.

Down in the betting ring, yellow-back gold certificates are being tossed back and forth like pennies. The rotund colored gentleman with the smile that won’t come off, who for years has acted as John A. Drake’s betting commissioner, is going quietly from one bookmaker to another, placing wagers of thousands of dollars with each, merely by a nod and a word, without a question as to his authority to risk a fortune for his employer. For at Saratoga it is a ‘gentleman’s game,’ and the betting, although as high as a million dollars has been wagered on one race, is after all a minor feature.

…All is brightness, gaiety and laughter, for racing at Saratoga is a pastime not a business…There is nothing just like it in America, or elsewhere in the world.

Read the full article from the June 1905 edition of The New England Magazine



While I was researching this article, I recalled something I posted about the 1930 Travers. As New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Saratoga in 1930 – perhaps accompanied by Mr. Howe – where he witnessed Jim Dandy’s win over Gallant Fox in the Travers. I wrote about it in the notes section of this article from 2008.

Photograph of the Saratoga Grandstand, New York Public Library

You can read more about the author Louis Howe here

Read more about Saratoga Race Course in Colin’s Ghost past postings

I will be in Saratoga on Whitney weekend and, of course, I can not wait.


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