Saratoga Stories: A Dinner Party to Remember

Events / Travel
Historic Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York has been the scene of countless important horse racing moments, including a dinner party in 1868 that helped spark a resurgence in Maryland racing and a pretty important race! (Eclipse Sportswire)

The story of the sport of horse racing lies in its places: sprawling expanses of bluegrass nourishing generations, stunning mountain vistas watching over their battles, and timeless towns centered around these equine athletes. Summer brings America to one of those timeless towns, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the best that the sport has to offer congregate for new editions of long-running fixture races.

As racing returns to the Spa, we once again reflect on Saratoga’s role within the long and expansive tale of racing in America. Many an iconic name has debuted at this vaunted track that has inspired cherished traditions close to our hearts. Included among those is a classic stakes that grew out of a day at the races and the party that followed.

This Saratoga story shares the Spa’s connection to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.

Saratoga Revelry

Saratoga Springs had been a hub for racing long before its namesake track opened. As early as the 1820s, harness racing had been part of the festivities in this town known for its mineral springs. The springs brought forth crowds eager to take in their supposed medicinal qualities, with spas and resorts springing up to accommodate those travelers.

The Saratoga Trotting Course, which still exists in the modern version of this summer destination, hosted these more sedate and respectable trotters and pacers, which stood in contrast to the more raucous nature of the gallopers.

Of course, once the trotting course was in place and thriving, someone had to come along and propose running Thoroughbreds. John Morrissey, the boxer turned gambling man turned politician, was the money behind bringing runners to the Spa, a four-day meet in 1863 that was so popular and profitable that Morrissey decided to purchase 125 acres across the street from the harness track. With the names of more respectable men like financiers John Hunter, Leonard Jerome, and William Travers attached, Morrissey built a grandstand and a new dirt track specifically for the Thoroughbreds.

Four years on, in 1868, the new Saratoga Race Course had grown into a destination for both horse and human. With races like the Travers Stakes and the Saratoga Cup on the schedule, the sport’s elite gravitated northward to the resort town each summer. Among those was a textile manufacturer named Milton Sanford.

Sanford owned cotton and wool mills in Massachusetts and produced blankets for the Union Army during the Civil War. His business ventures gave him the resources to pursue his passion for Thoroughbreds. Sanford bought a New Jersey training facility he named Preakness for a nearby creek and then purchased a Kentucky farm he called Preakness Stud. He came to Saratoga in 1868 with a 5-year-old named Lancaster, who he entered in the 2¼-mile Saratoga Cup against three others, Morrissey, Fanny Cheatham, and James A. Connolly.

Lancaster, piloted by English jockey William Hayward, won the fourth Saratoga Cup by “half a head” according to the Baltimore Sun. Thrilled by the close victory, Sanford threw a dinner party to celebrate the occasion, inviting such friends as Hunter and Oden Bowie, the newly elected governor of Maryland, to Union Hall Hotel.

The evening must have been one to remember as Hunter called for a stakes race to commemorate the occasion. Bowie accepted the challenge, promising to build a new racetrack in Maryland to host the stakes. The men in attendance, including Sanford, pledged to nominate their yearlings for this new race, the Dinner Party Stakes, to be held two years hence.

From this Saratoga revelry would come a bit of Triple Crown history.

History in the Making

The Civil War had ended racing in many of the areas involved in the conflict, including Maryland. Oden Bowie wanted to revive the sport in his state and his pledge at Sanford’s 1868 dinner party was the catalyst for the construction of a new racetrack for that purpose. Bowie headed up the newly formed Maryland Jockey Club and oversaw the construction of Pimlico Race Course on 70 acres near Jones Falls.

An epic dinner party led to the Preakness Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The racetrack opened on Oct. 25, 1870, and the Dinner Party Stakes was the feature race on the card. More than 10,000 attended, including many of Baltimore’s most fashionable ladies. The Dinner Party drew a field of seven, including Milton Sanford’s colt Preakness. A son of the legendary sire Lexington, Preakness needed time to grow into his oversized frame, so he did not start racing until late in his 3-year-old season. Ridiculed by observers for his ungainly appearance, Sanford’s colt was not the betting favorite for the Dinner Party Stakes – that honor went to a horse named Foster – but Preakness he had no trouble with the two-mile distance. William Hayward, the same jockey that had been aboard Lancaster in that Saratoga Cup two years earlier, guided Preakness to victory over horses owned by August Belmont Sr., H.P. McGrath, and Gov. Bowie.

Sanford took home the winner’s share of a purse of $18,500 and the laurels of owning the winner of this inaugural Pimlico stakes. Maryland celebrated the unveiling of its most famous racetrack. Years later, we would know this was the moment that we all welcomed another immortal name to the story of the sport.

Three years later, Pimlico greeted the addition of a spring meet with a new stakes race named for that first Dinner Party Stakes victor, the Preakness Stakes. Ironically, the horse himself was still racing, but of course was not eligible for this stakes for 3-year-olds. Survivor galloped to victory by 10 lengths in 1873, easily triumphing over a field of six others in the 1½-mile stakes. While the history of the Preakness Stakes is full of fits and starts, finally settling into his current place in the sport and its calendar decades later, this middle jewel of the Triple Crown owes its name and its existence to a Saratoga celebration a century and a half ago. That day of good cheer amongst the horsemen that formed this sport’s earliest years inspired one track, two races, and more than a hundred years of great horses and legendary performances.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

A True Jewel

Every year, fans descend on Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md. to watch some of the country’s best 3-year-olds compete in the Preakness Stakes. Earlier on that day’s card comes a stakes called the Dinner Party, a race even older than that jewel in our Triple Crown. Both races come to us from a distant celebration near one of the sport’s oldest racetracks, when a man gathered his friends to mark a hard-earned victory and in turn gave rise to much more. How fitting then that these tests of the sport’s best owe their very existence to Saratoga, the heart of horse racing.

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