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Unearthing Saratoga's lost history

In baseball, they can tell you who led the league in triples in 1879 (it was Buttercup Dickerson), who was hit by the most pitches in 1912 (Bert Daniels) and what pitcher issued the most wild pitches in 1933 (Roy "Tarzan" Parmelee).

In horse racing they can tell you, well, not much of anything.

Horse racing is older than baseball and every bit as deep rooted in its traditions, but so much of its history has been lost due to the combination of woeful record keeping and indifference. Ask someone who the leading trainer in Saratoga in 1908 was and the only answer you could ever get was "no one knows."

That was the situation when someone at NYRA asked Mike Kane, who at the time worked for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, if Julien Leparoux had broken the record for most wins at Saratoga by an apprentice in 2006. Kane couldn't answer that question, and that bothered him.

"That was just crazy to me," said Kane, also the long time racing writer for the Schenectady Gazette. "Here you have this historic racetrack and yet there were huge holes when it came to its history."

Here you have this historic racetrack and yet there were huge holes when it came to its history.

-- Mike Kane, horse racing historian


So he set out to fill in as many holes as he could. Over the next seven years, Kane, Allan Carter and a team of researchers set about to put the many pieces of Saratoga's history back together. Their work is part of a book released earlier this year to coincide with Saratoga's 150th anniversary.

"150 Year of Racing in Saratoga" is far more than numbers and stats. The authors delve into the history and lore of Saratoga and unearth many stories that, like the numbers, have been lost over time. There's a chapter about trainer Mary Hirsch winning the Travers in 1938, an era when female trainers were all but unheard of. There's another about a horse named Los Angeles, the best "Horse for the Course" in Saratoga history. She won 18 times there.

But the most valuable information in the book is the statistics that had disappeared.

Prior to 1958, the lists of leading trainers and jockeys was nonexistent. (Imagine baseball not even knowing who led the American League in hitting in 1955). The only way to bring this information back to life was to dive into the volumes of old chart books at the Racing Museum and record every Saratoga race by hand. It was a mind-numbing, seemingly endless task but Kane and Carter and their team of unpaid researchers felt it was something that needed to be done.

"We viewed this as a challenge," Kane said.

They couldn't do it all. The charts prior to 1900 didn't include information as pertinent as the winning trainer, so Kane and Carter decided they would record the history of Saratoga from 1900 through 1957, the year someone first bothered to put it all down on paper. That means Saratoga's statistical history from 1863 through 1899 is still a blank.

So who was the leading trainer in 1908? We now know that not only was it John Madden, but that Madden's 1908 season is arguably the best any Saratoga trainer has ever had. (Sorry, Todd Pletcher). Madden won 16 races that year during a 15-day meet. To this day he remains the only trainer ever to average more than one win per day.

That feat looks even better when you consider that they only had six races a day back then. Madden won nearly 18 percent of all the races contested at the meet. At today's expanded meet, that would be the equivalent of Pletcher winning 72 races. He's never won more than 38. Madden also won seven stakes at the 1908 meet.

Thanks to "150 Years of Racing in Saratoga" we know that the John Velazquez or Jerry Bailey of the 1920s was Laverne Fator. He won four riding titles during the decade and was particularly dominant in 1921 when he won 37 races during a 27-day meet. Eddie Arcaro was widely considered the greatest jockey of his time, but he won only four riding titles, the same amount as his contemporary Ted Atkinson. When D. Wayne Lukas won his sixth Saratoga training title in 1992 it went unnoticed that he tied a record for most Spa titles. Sam Hildreth also won six titles, a record since broken by Bill Mott and Pletcher.

There's plenty more about horse racing history that we don't know. Kane and Carter worked only on Saratoga, leaving what happened elsewhere in the twenties, thirties and forties unanswered questions. Who won the most stakes races in the U.S. in 1937? What jockey tore up Pimlico during the 1940s? Likely, no one will ever know. But the history of Saratoga, the most important racing meet in the country, is no longer shrouded in mystery.