This Saturday’s program at Saratoga will be headlined by the Alabama Stakes. One of the top races in the country for 3-year-old fillies, its moniker seems confusing at first glance. After all, the state of Alabama is far away from Saratoga. Why is there a race named after it?
In fact, the name “Alabama” is an indirect tribute to William Cottrell, a major owner and breeder in the 1860s and 1870s. His greatest triumph came in the 1884 Kentucky Derby, when he won with Buchanan. When the powers-that-be of Saratoga wanted to name a race after him in 1872, Cottrell declined, not wanting a race named after him. The track insisted, and ultimately named the race the Alabama as a compromise. Cottrell’s hometown was Mobile, Alabama.
While there may not be a “Cottrell Stakes” to look forward to this Saturday, plenty of other great people and horses have major races named after them.
Here’s a look at the background of some of Saratoga’s top races:
Saratoga’s signature event, won by Tiz the Law last Saturday, is named after the first president of the Saratoga Association. Travers co-founded the track with John Morrissey and Leonard Jerome in 1863. While Morrissey was the driving force behind racing operations, he had a rough-and-tumble reputation from his days as a prizefighter, making him persona non grata to some of Saratoga’s elite. Travers, meanwhile, was a well-known stockbroker and attorney, with plenty of social status. When Travers was named the first president of the association, it gave the track instant credibility among its wealthy customers.
The first Saratoga meet at the current site, in 1864, was headlined by the inaugural running of the Travers Stakes, for the country’s top three-year-olds. Travers himself won the first edition, with Kentucky.
Best known as the Secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland, William Collins Whitney led a group of investors which purchased the then-declining Saratoga in 1901. Whitney was known primarily as one of the country’s top breeders at the time. He would eventually go on to breed 26 stakes winners, including champion filly Artful.
However, it was in the revitalization of Saratoga that Whitney left his mark. His syndicate purchased 100 acres of land across from the main track, which became the Oklahoma training track. He expanded the track from a mile to a mile and an eighth, created a new paddock, and renovated the grandstand and clubhouse. All these new features made Saratoga a premier tourist destination once again.
While William died in 1904, his family’s legacy has continued to permeate the Saratoga experience. His son, Harry Payne Whitney, inherited his stable, and won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness six times, and the Belmont four times. That run ensured the status of the Whitney family for decades to come.
In tribute to WIlliam and Harry, Saratoga instituted the Whitney Stakes for older horses in 1928. In 1981, the race became a grade 1 for the first time, and has since become a cornerstone race on the American racing calendar.
Saratoga’s top race for two-year-olds was contested for the first time in 1904. Its origins are simple: with a field usually full of promising young horses, racing fans are “hopeful” that its contestants will blossom to their full potential.
While Forego is one of the all-time greats of racing, having won three consecutive Horse of the Year titles from 1974 to 1976, it is somewhat ironic that his race is held at Saratoga. He was dominant at Aqueduct and Belmont Park, but only raced at Saratoga twice. As a 3-year-old, he was well-beaten in an allowance race at seven furlongs. He did not return until the 1977 Whitney, when he struggled to handle a wet track and was no factor.
His race was inaugurated at Belmont Park in 1980, but was moved to Saratoga in 1982. It was held as grade 1 for the first time in 2001. In recent years, it has become one of the preeminent sprint races on the American racing schedule.
Even though Forego did his best running at long distances, having a seven-furlong race named for him is reasonable. He excelled at this distance, with wins in the Carter in 1974 and 1975, and the Vosburgh in 1974.
SWORD DANCER STAKES
The biggest grass race at Saratoga is, in another twist of irony, named for a horse best suited for dirt. Sword Dancer was voted Horse of the Year in 1959 after winning six major stakes races, including the Travers. As a 4-year-old in 1960, he added three more stakes wins to his resume. That year, he tried grass three times, in the Arlington Handicap, the United Nations, and the Man O’War. He came in second in the United Nations and third in the Man O’War.
This race was first held in 1977 at Belmont Park, and run at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. In 1980, it was expanded to 1 ½ miles, and given grade 1 status in 1984. It was moved to Saratoga in 1992.
Although generally considered the sister race of the Hopeful, the Spinaway in fact predates it by more than twenty years. Spinaway was the top 2-year-old filly of 1880, winning seven stakes races, all against males. Unfortunately, an injury prevented her from racing at age 3.
In tribute to her, the Spinaway Stakes was contested for the first time in 1881. The race went on hiatus following the 1891 running, but resumed in 1900. It was extended in 1994 from six furlong to seven.
Known as the “Sultan of Saratoga”, Fourstardave made history, winning at least one race at Saratoga every year from 1987 to 1994. Although this New York-bred gelding flashed some ability on dirt, including a win in the 1988 St. Paul Derby at Canterbury, he was at his best on grass. In 1991, he won the Daryl’s Joy Handicap in track record time, setting a mark for 1 1/16 miles on grass that would not be bested until 2015.
After his retirement in 1995, the Daryl’s Joy, a race he won twice, was renamed in his honor. Since then, it has grown from a rather obscure grade 3 contest to a preeminent race for grass milers. It was run as a grade 1 for the first time in 2016.
PERSONAL ENSIGN STAKES
This race has had a long, winding history. It was inaugurated in 1948 at the old Jamaica racetrack, and named after the great mare of the 1880s, Firenze. It was briefly shifted to Sararoga in 1958, then moved to Aqueduct in 1960, where it remained until 1985, except for the 1975 running, which was held at Belmont.
The race also went through many distances and surfaces. It was originally a 1 1/16 mile affair, and was extended to 1 ⅛ miles in 1951. It was cut back to a mile in 1960, moved back in 1961, expanded further to 1 ⅜ miles for 1975, went back to 1 ⅛ miles in 1976, and expanded to 1 ¼ miles in 1995. In 2012, the race was cut back again to 1 ⅛ miles. It was also held on the grass from 1972 to 1975.
Despite all the distance and surface changes, it at least kept its name until 1986. That year, it was renamed for John A. Morris, a nineteenth-century horseman who built the now-defunct Morris Park. A year into having that name, it was granted grade 1 status for the first time.
In 1998, the race was renamed for Personal Ensign, the champion mare who finished her career with thirteen wins from thirteen starts. She raced just once at Saratoga, but it was a memorable win. She won the 1988 Whitney, for her only win against males.
First contested at Aqueduct in 1954, this race is named after prominent owner William Woodward. In 1910, he inherited Bel Air Stud from his uncle, James, and went on to produce some of the best horses of the next few decades. Notably, he owned Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox and Omaha. He served as the chairman of the Jockey Club from 1930 to 1950. He died in 1953, at the age of 77.
Originally run at Belmont Park, the race was switched to Aqueduct in the 1960s, while Belmont Park was being rebuilt. When Belmont reopened in 1968, the race moved back there, and was shifted to Saratoga in 2006.