Last Monday, horse racing celebrated an historic anniversary of the "Match of the Century," staged November 1, 1938, at Pimlico, jammed solid with frenzied fans who watched in awe as an underdog Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral, a huge 1-4 favourite, and yet the neat aspect is that only a few days ago, I saw both of these horses...well, at least their images, hanging on plaques in Saratoga Springs' Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. In off-season, I virtually had the place to myself!
Like Cooperstown's excellent Baseball Hall of Fame, this inviting, modern facility, located a short 5-minute drive from the city core, is geared to provide the entire family with a rewarding experience through a well-organized series of informative exhibits, many of which are interactive and will keep kids motivated to discover more about horse racing.
A committee selects new inductees yearly. At present, there are 186 Thoroughbreds, 93 jockeys and 88 trainers in the Hall. A video display
beams up important data on each selection. I was pleased to read about Canadian jockey inductees, Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat and Sandy Hawley as well as perennial Cuban favourite, Avelino Gomez who tragically died in a track mishap.
As a kid, I worked for the pari-mutuels to help pay my way through school, so for me, it was an experience that brought back memories: reading the Daily Racing Form, handicapping winners, receiving whispered tips, watching the tote board for last-minute "smart money," and a host of other racetrack activities. In those days, hockey players worked at the Fort Erie Racetrack to supplement their much smaller salaries; thus, I worked beside Chicago Blackhawk Stan Mikita and Boston Bruin goalie, Gerry Cheevers from St. Catharines.
The galleries are well laid out in a circular fashion around an outdoor courtyard that features a large, stunning sculpture of Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner in 1973, ending 25 years of Triple Crown drought. From exhibits, we learn that a Triple Crown is quite an achievement, consisting of wins at the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Preakness Stakes all over a period of five weeks that surely test a three-year-old's speed, stamina, and endurance. Victory is one of racing's ultimate achievements.
The Hall contains many beautiful oil on canvass paintings, silver and gold trophies as well as bronze sculptures that celebrate this sport of Kings. An anatomy exhibit reveals the skeletal structure of a thoroughbred and another video display explains the importance of regular shoeing (every 40 days) as well as the kinesiology or optimum movement of the horse, achieving its main thrust from its powerful hind legs.
There's a Horse Play Gallery for kids who can wear jockey clothing and ride surrogate horses. Another wonderful display reveals how horses are trained to
become acclimatized to the starting gate. You can learn how to read a tote board, figure out odds and just about every other item involved with horse racing including one that was new to me, an actual lady's silk "purse" that was given to winners. Now, the purses are filled with substantial amounts of cash. There's a collection of vivid jockey silks including the storied blue and yellow Windfield Farms pattern of famed Canadian horse owner, E.P. Taylor.
Inside the large hall where they conduct the yearly inductee ceremonies, I watched a short movie called "Race America" which provided a solid overview of the sport of racing, starting from the birth of a foal.
I took a quick look across the street at the Saratoga Racetrack and snapped a few pictures, but an empty racetrack looks forlorn. Business has been quick in Saratoga Springs to seize upon the thoroughbred motif. It's everywhere. On the long, lovely main street offering lots of attractive shops and restaurants, you bump into equine art from neon sign to plastic sculpture to even a horses' head fountain design at the Hampton Inn where we stayed, one of the prettiest hotels I've ever encountered.
Downtown on Broadway St., you come across amazing architecture, including that of City Hall which features lions rather than horses. Historic banks and storefront facades add an air of elegance to this city which is easy to walk. Add Saratoga Springs to your bucket list. And don't forget to visit the Racing Hall of Fame.
Saratoga is worthy of triple-crown status itself. It's surely not a one-horse town. There are other places here to visit: the Tang Teaching Museum & Art Gallery, the Saratoga Springs History Museum, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, Ulysses S. Grant Cottage and the Saratoga Historical Society. A few miles down the road takes you to the National Historic Park which is the site of a huge British defeat under General Burgoyne at the hands of the Revolutionary Army propelled by none other than Benedict Arnold whose ego eventually got him into trouble. But that's for next visit.
Saratoga Springs is conveniently located just east of Utica and Rochester and north of Albany, New York's capital, only 287 miles from Buffalo.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.