SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — This season, Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its sesquicentennial and it is entirely appropriate that Saturday afternoon - exactly 150 years from the date the first race was contested – the featured event will be the Whitney Handicap.
For without the intervention of William Collins Whitney at the beginning of the last century, there is only the slimmest of chances that the tradition and beauty that is the magic of modern-day Saratoga would be in place.
Racing began at Saratoga within a month of the Battle of Gettysburg. John Morrissey, a bare-knuckle boxing champ heavily connected to the underworld and involved in its illegal activities, is credited as the founding father of racing at Saratoga, but he very quickly brought in as partners William Travers, Leonard Jerome and John Hunter, sportsmen of good reputation and considerable wealth.
Within a year, the track had been relocated across Union Avenue, and a state-of-the-art grandstand constructed and given the name Saratoga Race Course, presently holding the distinction of being North America’s oldest operating sports venue.
Over the next quarter of a century, the momentum of the early days waxed and waned and, in 1891, the grounds were purchased by Gottfried Walbaum, a disreputable bookmaker and casino operator who allegedly commenced his crooked course in business as a brothel keeper in New York City. Initially, the Walbaum regime appeared promising as a new and larger clubhouse and grandstand had been constructed. However, by 1896, mismanagement and underhanded dealings by Walbaum and his cohorts led to financial collapse and the cancellation of the entire race meeting.
Racing resumed in 1897, but Saratoga staggered along, seemingly a place past its prime until acquired by Whitney in 1900. Forming a syndicate that included such luminaries as August Belmont and F.R. Hitchcock, Whitney wasted no time in enlarging and improving the grounds.
By the summer of 1902, the clubhouse had been completely renovated and the grandstand enlarged to seat 6,000 spectators. A large tract to the northeast of the facility had also been acquired and was used for the location of the Oklahoma training track, which included jumps for the conditioning of steeplechasers. By the following year’s racing season, the track had been reconstructed and lengthened from a mile to nine furlongs, as it remains today.
Whitney, who had modernized the U.S. Navy while serving as its Secretary during the first administration of President Grover Cleveland, did not restrict his investment to the race course and its immediate environs, pumping considerable funds into the renovation of the town of Saratoga Springs. Perhaps most of all, Whitney restored legitimacy to racing in this ideal summer setting and the moneyed class on the eastern seaboard readily came to relish the annual August retreat to the Adirondack foothills for a month of cool breezes and grand sport.
Whitney developed a racing stable the equal of any of its contemporaries during the last five years of his life, which ended tragically on Feb. 2, 1904, as a result of a ruptured appendix. Cut down in his prime at the age of 62, Whitney left much to many. To racing, his principal gift was genetic.
Harry Payne Whitney, Whitney’s elder son, continued the family’s racing legacy, campaigning a considerable number of the best horses to race during the first three decades of the 20th century, including Regret, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby; Whisk Broom II, the first winner of the New York Handicap Triple; and Upset, which lived up to his name by handing Man o’ War his only defeat in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga.
Harry Payne passed the torch to his son, C.V. Whitney, who campaigned horses such as Equipoise, Top Flight, Counterpoint, Bug Brush and Silver Spoon, continuing to race into the 1990s. C.V.’s widow, Marylou, continues the family involvement to this day, having won the 2004 Belmont and Travers Stakes with Birdstone.
William Payne Whitney, Will’s younger son known simply as Payne, restricted his activities on the racetrack to betting, but watched as his wife, Helen Hay Whitney, established Greentree Stable and earned the sobriquet of “First Lady of the Turf.”
The next generation of this branch consisted of John Hay “Jock” Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson, partners in Greentree after their mother’s demise in 1944. During its time of prominence, Greentree raced champions Twenty Grand, Devil Diver, Capot, Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny and a host of others of high quality, most of which performed admirably at Saratoga.
From 1938 to 1999, Jock Whitney and later, his widow Betsey, owned a 106-acre tract immediately adjacent to the Saratoga backstretch which included a private training track and an 8,000 square foot main house, the screen porch of which overlooked the training facility with a backdrop of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
The above Whitneys have won seven renewals of the Travers, Saratoga’s greatest race, and 10 editions of their namesake, the Whitney. Greentree’s six victories in the Whitney double the number of any other owner in that event.
Inaugurated in 1928, the rich tradition of the Whitney Handicap is still alive. A contentious field of eight is set, headed by last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned, also victorious in the recent Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Chief opposition likely will come from Cross Traffic, Mucho Macho Man, Successful Dan and Ron the Greek, although Godolphin Stables’ Alpha, broken by Aiken’s Tim Jones and undefeated in three starts at the Spa, will bear watching.
Some maintain that the Whitney Handicap is named for Will Whitney while others, noting that the inaugural running took place a year after Payne’s death, believe him to be the honoree. The more appropriate celebration should include the entire family which collectively has had as much to do with the treasure that is Saratoga as all others combined.
Synonymous as applied to thoroughbred racing of the highest class, the names Whitney and Saratoga are inseparable.