Horses have been valuable to humans ever since they were first domesticated thousands of years ago. Through the centuries, people have employed horses for many purposes. Their primary use has often been for transportation, whether that meant carrying people from place to place or pulling stagecoaches or conveying mounted soldiers into battle. Horses have also been kept in barns for use as draft animals, pulling plows on farms, or for ranchers to ride as they herd their livestock. Some people even keep horses as pets or use them in equine therapy, but horses have also been used for entertainment. Horse racing as a sport has been around since ancient times, and it’s still popular today, with people wagering millions of dollars each year on these equine competitions. One of the places where horse racing is most popular is in Saratoga Springs, NY, home of Saratoga Race Course.
History of Thoroughbred Racing in the Spa City
Racing at Saratoga began thanks to John Morrissey, an Irish-born former boxer and casino operator who organized the first racing meet in the Spa City in 1863. The meet was only four days long, but its success prompted Morrissey and his financial backers to build a new facility, Saratoga Race Course, across the street, where races would take place starting the following year. The popularity of racing at the track, one of the oldest sporting venues in the country, grew over the years, and currently, the annual racing meet runs for 40 days from late July to early September.
Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds
But Saratoga Race Course isn’t the only place to see horses race in Saratoga Springs. South of the thoroughbred track is the Saratoga Casino and Raceway. Opened in 1941 as Saratoga Harness, this racing facility is the third-oldest of its type and the first one to have been built specifically for harness racing. The differences between the racing action at these two facilities come down to the types of races and the types of horses used.
At Saratoga Race Course, jockeys race around the track atop thoroughbred horses. All thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to one of three sires that were brought to England from the Middle East for breeding in the late 1700s. Thoroughbred horses are bred for their speed and agility, and meticulous records are kept of their lineage in what is known as the American Stud Book. Today, these records are kept by the Jockey Club, which verifies the identity of every thoroughbred alive today and also keeps the official registry of their names; all thoroughbred names must get the club’s approval to ensure that each horse has a unique identity and won’t be confused for another.
On the other hand, at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, jockeys, also known as drivers, ride in carts tethered behind standardbred horses. Standardbreds were developed as a breed in the United States, and all modern standardbreds are descended from Hambletonian 10, a stallion foaled in 1849. This horse breed is known to be shorter in stature but more muscular than thoroughbreds. Horses must travel at a consistent trot and not gallop in a harness race; thoroughbreds do not have to keep a consistent pace and can gallop in their races.
- About Thoroughbreds
- The Science of Naming a Racehorse
- Buildings for Race Horses
- American Stud Book Rules and Requirements
- Rules of Thoroughbred and Harness Racing in New York
- The History of Racing
- Light Horse Breed Types and Uses (PDF)
- Horse History, Characteristics, and Types
Notable Races and Horses
Saratoga Race Course has played host to many famous horses and legendary races over the years, including the one that cemented the track’s reputation as “the graveyard of favorites.” In the 1930 Travers Stakes, favorite Gallant Fox lost to 100-to-1-shot Jim Dandy in what was the most stunning upset to date. Also among famously shocking races at the track is the 1973 Whitney Handicap. In this race, Triple Crown winner Secretariat, running at 1-to-10 odds, lost to a horse named Onion.
A notable fan favorite among horses to have raced at Saratoga was Fourstardave. He made his debut at Saratoga Race Course in 1987, and he won at least one race there every year for eight consecutive years, earning him the nickname “the Sultan of Saratoga.” Today, Fourstardave has a race at Saratoga named in his honor. After he died in 2002, he was buried at the track.
Plenty of racing history has been made at Saratoga, and the fillies weren’t to be left out of the action. In 2009, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly ever to win the Woodward Stakes. Previously, she had been the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes, and she went undefeated that year. Rachel Alexandra went on to earn the title of Horse of the Year; the last time a filly had won this prestigious honor was in 1944.
But perhaps one of the most well-known and -loved horses at Saratoga has been one that never won a race there. In 2003, Funny Cide, the so-called “gutsy gelding” born on a Saratoga farm, was the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, and he followed that with a victory in the Preakness Stakes, leading to a thrilling run-up to the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. He came up short, finishing third in the Belmont, but while Funny Cide didn’t win the Triple Crown, he was the first New York-bred to win the Eclipse Award for best three-year-old male of the year.
- Travers Shocker! When Jim Dandy Did the Impossible
- Gallant Fox
- The Day Onion Slayed Secretariat
- Sultan of Saratoga: Remembering Fourstardave
- Rachel Alexandra Wins Woodward Stakes By a Head
- Rachel Alexandra Named Horse of the Year
- Legendary New York-Bred Funny Cide Remembered in Stakes
Not only has Saratoga Race Course played a sizable part in the history of the sport of horse racing, but it has also made numerous appearances in pop culture. In fact, the track was the setting for an early scene in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Diamonds Are Forever. In addition, Saratoga Race Course was a primary setting for the 1937 film Saratoga, which would be actress Jean Harlow’s last movie; she died during filming. The track has also been a location for various other movies, notably 2003’s Seabiscuit, starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper. And Saratoga has also featured in perhaps one of the more mysterious pop songs in recent decades, Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.”