by Terry Conway
Legend has it that the ghost of John Morrissey still haunts Saratoga Springs, N.Y.., home to the oldest functioning racetrack and sporting venue of any kind in the United States.
John "Old Smoke" Morrissey probably is the greatest American legend you have never heard of. Once the muscle for the Irish mob and a heavyweight bare-knuckle fighter, he challenged world champion Yankee Sullivan for the world title in 1853. Morrissey was battered throughout the fight, but won by disqualification in the 37th round, when Sullivan hit him while he was down.
The proprietor of several successful saloons and gambling houses, Morrissey began paying the police to ignore his illegal gambling operation and reportedly earned a $1 million profit within five years. He invested his money in real estate and then turned his attention to politics. Described as a "bully politician," Morrissey spearheaded a gang known as the Dead Rabbits, which — with clubs and fists — electioneered for the famed Tammany Hall in New York City.
By the early 1860s, Morrissey was rubbing elbows with a cluster of wealthy businessmen who shared an interest in horse racing and the relaxed summers at Saratoga. He dressed in a swallow-tailed coat, striped trousers, patent leather boots, and white kid gloves with a $5,000 diamond pinned to his shirt and smaller gems as cuff links.
Morrissey's vision was simple: bring the best American Thoroughbreds to Saratoga. In 1863, Morrissey purchased an old fairground track on the north side of Union Avenue and formed the Saratoga Racing Association. He persuaded New York City business and social elites William R. Travers, John Hunter and Leonard Jerome to join in and front the project. Due to his checkered past, Morrissey’s name never appeared on any official documentation. Today, that track is the site of the Oklahoma Training Track.
William R. Travers
Tall and erect, Travers was an attorney who created a fortune as a financier on Wall Street. One of the most popular men among the rising population of brokers, uptown club men and followers of the turf, Travers owned and bred some of the era's best Thoroughbred bloodlines. Travers was the first president of the Saratoga Racing Association and the Travers Stakes, named in his honor, is the oldest major Thoroughbred horse race in the United States.
Saratoga’s racetrack opened on Aug. 3, 1863, while the Civil War still raged. The following August, the Travers was the climax of the four-day meet. Under gathering clouds the bell called five horses to the post in the first Travers, then run at 1¾ miles with a purse of $2,500.
Travers and Hunter co-owned the second favorite, a colt named Kentucky. His chief rival Norfolk was ruled out of the race by Morrissey after he was duped out of $7,000 in a recent racing scam in which the horse beat Kentucky in Patterson, N.J. Jockey Abe Hawkins was making his Saratoga debut on the favorite, Tipperary. A former slave, Hawkins and President Lincoln were the only Americans throughout the country known as "Honest Abe."
Heading into the stretch, Harpers Weekly reported: "Kentucky easily shook off Tipperary stalling off Abe's determined efforts, as if it were second nature and sailed home a four-length winner in front of a roaring crowd of 5,000. Time was 3:18¼."
Kentucky would go on to a remarkable career, winning 20 consecutive races and becoming the undisputed champion in the East for three seasons. Of the 23 races he ran, Kentucky lost only two of them, an admirable feat during the years of two-, three-, and four- mile heat races. He won the Saratoga Cup in 1865 and 1866.
1988 Epic Battle
These days thousands flock to Saratoga Springs each August specifically to participate in and watch the “Mid-Summer Derby.” In 1988, an epic battle unfolded on a sparkling afternoon in front of a crowd of 45,504, then the third-highest in Saratoga history, and they bet a record $6.42 million at the track. Watch 1988 Travers Stakes on YouTube
Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold raced for different stables but seemed to have gone through their lives joined at the hip. Sons of the same stallion, Mr. Prospector, the colts were born in the same barn at Claiborne Farm and grew up together in pastures in Paris, Ky. They went to New York as 2-year-olds and spent the winter of 1987-88 in Florida.
Seth Hancock bred the Tom Rolfe mare File to Mr. Prospector and the resulting foal was the dashing, darkish chestnut given the prospecting name Forty Niner. Trained by the legendary Woody Stephens, he earned an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. In a heartbreaker, Forty Niner lost by a neck to Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Racing as a homebred for Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey, Seeking the Gold broke to the lead from the inside post under Pat Day and led Forty Niner by a length into the first turn. As they straightened away on the backstretch, Forty Niner grabbed the lead on the outside with Dynaformer at his withers through a half-mile in :48 3/5, six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 and a mile in 1:37 4/5.
Chris McCarron, riding Forty Niner for the first time, shook the reins turning for home and Forty Niner drew away from the tiring Dynaformer. He reached the eighth pole two lengths in front, but the race was far from over. Betting favorite Brian's Time, (who won the Jim Dandy earlier in the meet) drew close on the outside, threatening to make it a three-horse blanket finish, but couldn't sustain his charge.
With Seeking the Gold thundering down the deep stretch on the outside of Forty Niner, the pair battled side by side, necks stretched, ears pricked as they powered to the finish. Both heads appeared to hit the wire together, and Forty Niner snatched the victory by a nose.
Forty Niner's fastest quarter-mile was the last one, when he came home in a swift :23 3/5 seconds.
"He was flyin,' " McCarron said. "I could feel him under me. It was like his feet were off the ground."
The Travers finish reversed the recent fortunes of Stephens, who won eight Triple Crown races but had sent out 18 straight losers before his first Travers victory. In addition, Forty Niner shot down the theory that sons of Mr. Prospector could not win classic races at 1 ¼ miles. Forty Niner also proved that his victory by a nose over Seeking the Gold in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) four weeks before was genuine. And he held on to win a tight finish for the second straight time after losing three big photo finishes earlier in the year, including the Kentucky Derby to Winning Colors.
"When I saw those six furlongs in a nice, easy 1:13 and change, I knew he'd win it,'' said Stephens, then 74. "I knew they'd be coming, but he always fought back."
Seth Hancock and family took home the Travers trophy, a gold-plated replica of the original designed by Tiffany & Co. in 1920. They also saw Claiborne's blue and white colors painted onto a canoe which sits on a pond in the infield, a tradition that dates to 1926.
William R. Travers was a partner in Annieswood Stable in Westchester County, N.Y., along with Hunter and George Osgood, an in-law of Cornelious Vanderbilt, deemed the richest man in America. The operation had considerable success both in racing runners and breeding champions at their stud farm in West Chester County, N. Y. One of their most famous horses was Alarm, who many consider one of the best sprinters in American Thoroughbred horse racing history. When Travers died in Bermuda at the age of 67, the New York Times proclaimed “William R. Travers may have been the most popular man in New York."
Forty Niner notched 11 wins and was runner-up five times in 19 career starts with career earnings of $2,726,000. He began his stallion career at Claiborne Farm, then stood at Japan Bloodhorse Breeders' Association's Shizunai Stallion Station on the island of Hokkaido from 1996 until he was pensioned. Forty Niner notably sired Distorted Humor, Coronado's Quest, Ecton Park and Belmont Stakes (G1)winner Editor's Note. Distorted Humor, one of today's top stallions, adds to Forty Niner's reputation as a sire of sires. Now pensioned, Forty Niner still resides at the Shizunai farm.
Forty Niner’s wins would be the last major stakes races won by Woody Stephens. The legendary trainer passed away in 1998 of emphysema having won every significant stakes race in America during his career. Stephens and Forty Niner are depicted in the statue in Stanton, Ky., the trainer’s home town.
Seeking the Gold was one of the best runners from the stellar 1985 crop who triumphed in the Super Derby (G1), plus the Dwyer Stakes (G1), Peter Pan Stakes (G2), and Swale Stakes. He was second in six stakes, five of which were Grade 1s, including the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he finished a half-length behind subsequent Horse of the Year Alysheba.
Seeking the Gold entered stud at Claiborne at age five in 1990 and his stud fee climbed to as high as $250,000. He stood for a syndicate and is represented by 88 stakes winners and the earners of $85 million. Five of his runners were champions: Dubai Millennium, Seeking the Pearl, Heavenly Prize, Flanders, and Catch the Ring; and three were Breeders’ Cup winners: Flanders, Cash Run, and Pleasant Home.