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Saratoga Race Course: The August Place to Be
By Kimberly Gatto
History Press, April 2011, 176 pages paperback

To fans and participants of American horse racing, the focus may be on the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, but the 6 week summer meeting at Saratoga Race Course is the place to be seen. The historic facility in upstate New York has greeted racing's elite since 1863, and has earned its reputation as the Graveyard of Champions with so many famous horses going down to defeat, including both Man o'War and Secretariat. In her latest book, Boston-based author and horsewoman Kim Gatto tells the story of Saratoga Race Course, a place where time stands still, a living museum in every sense of the term.

Gatto starts off with a brief history of New York racing, starting with the old Newmarket track located near the current Belmont, and the Union Course, site of the famous match race between northern representative American Eclipse, and his southern rival Sir Henry. Racing quickly expanded across the state, including informal Thoroughbred and harness meets run at Saratoga Springs long before the current purpose-built tracks were envisioned. She describes the town, already popular for the healing properties of its mineral-rich spring water, and the people who teamed up to build the track, notably prizefighter John Morrissey who built the track for daytime gambling and a casino for evenings.

The rest of the book takes the racing fan down "memory lane", describing the many great horses that have competed over the historic oval, and explaining when many of the current stakes races were first introduced into the schedule. The first few meetings were run at the present-day Horse Haven, which was found to be inadequate as it was narrow and less than a mile around. Because of this, the Association purchased a 125-acre plot across the road and built the 9 furlong oval on it that is still used today. Gatto proceeds in chronological order, starting with the Travers Stakes, first run in 1864, America's first major stakes race which is now known as the "midsummer Derby". One of the most popular races in the early years was the Saratoga Cup, a 2 1/4 mile marathon that often attracted larger crowds than the Travers.

Gatto gives Man o'War a chapter to himself, as "Big Red" ran 4 times at Saratoga as a juvenile, including his lone career defeat in the 1919 Sanford Stakes, then came back to run twice more as a 3-year-old capped off by his Travers Stakes victory. In the subsequent chapters, readers learn about Gallant Fox, Seabiscuit, and War Admiral, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Nashua, Jaipur and Ridan's thrilling 1962 Travers (the first year the infield canoe was painted with the winner's colors), and Kelso. Moving into the 1970's, Gatto dedicated a chapter to two champions, Secretariat, who lost to Onion in the Whitney, and Ruffian, who won her only Saratoga start in the Spinaway Stakes. Later chapters cover fan favorites such as Timely Writer, Lady's Secret, Personal Ensign, Fourstardave, Lonesome Glory, Point Given, Commentator, and most recently Rachel Alexandra.

Saratoga Race Course is a special place in the hearts and minds of the American racing community, truly "the August place to be", and has earned that reputation through its rich and colorful history over nearly 150 years. With this book, Gatto has pieced together that history in an entertaining, informative work that racing fans will enjoy and will want to include in their personal libraries, as the reader not only learns about the track, but gets a useful overview of more than a century of American racing. Accompanying the text are many black and white photographs from historical archives as well as illustrations by Allison Pareis, along with 32 color photographs in a separate section. The appendix lists every winner of the Travers, Alabama, and Whitney, with jockey, trainer, owner, and running time.

Saratoga Race Course has a list price of $19.99 and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $14.99.

Rating:     5/5

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