Of all the longshots to achieve unlikely glory in the storied history of thoroughbred racing at Saratoga, there is no more astonishing rags-to-riches odyssey than that of the founding father of Saratoga Race Course, the remarkable John Morrissey.
Morrissey was many things during his turbulent and triumphant life. In his early years, he was an illiterate street brawler, gang member, cargo thief, brothel bouncer, and political enforcer. He eventually parlayed the power in his sledgehammer fists into riches and fame as the undefeated American bare-knuckle boxing champion.
Striving to become more than a skull-crushing barbarian, the uneducated Morrissey taught himself to read and write. He found success as owner and operator of numerous gambling houses in New York City and went on to become one of the most improbable politicians in American history, serving in both the United States Congress and the New York state Senate.
And somehow Morrissey also found the time to orchestrate the inaugural thoroughbred racing meet in Saratoga Springs at the age of 32. A year later, he went on to build one of the sport’s most iconic venues and presided over it with an iron first to make sure that his endeavor thrived. With his bare knuckles, Morrissey became a legendary gladiator capable of pasting anyone who got in his way. With his entrepreneurial vision, he established a tradition of thoroughbred racing excellence that remains the standard of the sport more than 150 years later.
John Morrissey was born on Feb. 5, 1831, in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland. His family arrived in America three years later, seeking to escape the poverty and famine that ravaged Ireland. They settled in Troy, N.Y., but life wasn’t much different than in Templemore. Morrissey’s father, Tim, worked odd jobs along the docks of the Hudson River for meager wages. While his father struggled to keep the family afloat financially, young John Morrissey was busy developing a reputation with the local authorities as a menace to society. By the time he was 18, Morrissey stood six feet tall and weighed a chiseled 175 pounds, measurements that were uncommon for the time. He was an intimidating figure with a propensity for violence.
In New York City, Morrissey quickly earned the moniker “Old Smoke,” which stuck with him throughout his life. The nickname was a badge of honor, a testament to Morrissey’s unbreakable will and phenomenal courage. During a fight with an underworld goon named Tom McCann at an indoor pistol gallery, Morrissey was pinned on his back atop burning coals from a stove that had overturned during the melee. As the glowing coals burned his flesh, Morrissey hurled McCann across the room and rose to his feet.
As flames, black smoke, and the scent of his scorched skin filled the air, an enraged Morrissey proceeded to thrash McCann until his face was unrecognizable, almost killing him in the process. Word of his exploits quickly made the rounds and Morrissey became one of the most feared men in New York.
On Oct. 12, 1853, Morrissey and Yankee Sullivan engaged in a bloody battle for the ages for the American boxing championship. In the 37th round — yes, the 37th round — Morrissey seized control. He pummeled Sullivan with a dozen consecutive blows and was on the verge of finishing Sullivan off when a riot broke out among the drunken spectators at ringside. The referee awarded the fight — and the American championship — to Morrissey.
Morrissey successfully defended his title against John Heenan and retired from the ring undefeated to focus on other opportunities.
After establishing a popular gaming house in Saratoga in 1861, Morrissey contemplated other ways to increase his wealth and stature even more. The most popular sport in the country at the time was horse racing, so Morrissey set up a four-day experimental thoroughbred meeting at an old trotting course in August of 1863. Similar to his other undertakings, Morrissey found a way to make thoroughbred racing in Saratoga a striking success.
Because of Morrissey’s ambition and resolve, thoroughbred racing had arrived at Saratoga. There were only eight races in the four-day meeting that summer, but the foundation for future success was in place. John Morrissey had delivered a winner.
The first organized races at Saratoga were so successful that Morrissey enlisted three partners — sportsmen William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and John Hunter — and put up the money for the construction of a grand racecourse across the street from the original track. Morrissey purchased 125 acres of land and in 1864 Saratoga Race Course opened its gates for the first time. Morrissey described his new track as “the most classic racecourse in this country, located among the pines, beautiful to the eye, and rejuvenating to the horse.”
The new track was a resounding success, but Morrissey didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels. He opened his Club House in 1870, a gambling palace in Saratoga’s Congress Park that attracted individuals from all walks of life. Morrissey’s “Elegant Hell,” as it was dubbed, attracted all sorts of characters, including presidents Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes, and future president Ulysses S. Grant, who was a celebrated former Civil War general at the time. Business tycoons such as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Rockefeller were also among Morrissey’s guests, as was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who later became better known as Mark Twain.
With his fighting days behind him and his business interests flourishing, Morrissey set his sights on the political arena. Tammany Hall backed Old Smoke in a successful run for the U.S. Congress in 1866. Morrissey served two terms in Congress before an ugly split from Tammany. He was later elected to the New York state Senate in 1875 and re-elected in 1877.
Morrissey, however, became ill at the beginning of his second term in the state Senate and died of pneumonia on May 1, 1878, at the Adelphi Hotel. He was 47. Morrissey’s estate was estimated to be worth more than $2 million at the time of his death.
Morrissey was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and the John Morrissey Stakes for New York-breds is run in his honor each summer at the historic track he conceptualized and brought to prominence.
Although his origins were humble, what Morrissey accomplished in boxing, business, gambling, politics, and thoroughbred racing secured him a legacy as one of the most unique American figures of the 19th century. A success in each of those diverse arenas, John Morrissey proved that the possibility of the American dream did in fact exist. All he needed to realize his ambitions was a fighting chance, or a chance to fight.
To learn more about John Morrissey, purchase the book “Bare Knuckles and Saratoga Racing: The Remarkable Life of John Morrissey” from author Brien Bouyea. Hardcover editions of the book signed by the author are available for $30 (which included tax and shipping) by sending a check to:
24 Tom Sawyer Drive
Wilton, NY 12831
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