The New York Racing Association has recently announced a revised configuration for the historic Saratoga Race Course for the 2022 race meet. A chute, or straight-away will return, allowing for a start directly into the clubhouse turn for races of one mile in distance. Known as the Wilson Chute, it had been a regular feature of the track until 1972, when the area was converted to additional parking.
The Wilson Chute is named in honor of Richard T. Wilson, Jr. who had been the President of the Saratoga Racing Association beginning in 1909. As an executive and an investor, he was integral in saving racing at the Spa and then developing the sport and the racing plant that so many are familiar with today.
Richard Thornton Wilson, Jr. was born to wealth in the city of New York in 1866, very shortly after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. His father hailed from Habersham County, Georgia and had been a Confederate commissary general. After establishing New York financial standing, General Wilson ventured to Europe at the height of the war to peddle cotton to industrialized nations there, generating revenue for the rebellion. Following the surrender, these same Gotham finance connections allowed him to form a banking house there. His mother was the former Miss Melissa Clementine Johnston of Macon, of the Georgia Johnston’s, with another rebel General Officer on that side of the pedigree. They purchased and for many years lived at 511 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the former Tweed Mansion, and were summer cottagers at Newport, RI.
A Columbia graduate, Class of 1887, “Dickie” Wilson went to work in his father’s banking firm, which had evolved into venture capitalism, and he later became the New York Commissioner of Municipal Statistics shortly before the incorporation of the five boroughs.
He became interested in thoroughbred racing, and participated at the municipal tracks, and also at Saratoga for which he developed a particular affection, often celebrating his birthday at the legendary United States Hotel. He then entered the Sport of Kings as a participant, and in April of 1898 his bay colt Athamus won at first asking at Aqueduct, which was also the owner’s first entry in his newly registered silks.
He joined the breeding side of the industry at Arch Hamilton’s Kirklevington Farm near Lexington, KY. Wilsons’s old gold and green colors would be seen many times in many winner’s circles, winning the Travers Stakes alone three times, and many years he or his horses would be the leaders in earnings, with every race in his lifetime run under trainer Thomas J. Healey.
In 1902 Richard T. Wilson was fitted for the “double harness” and married Miss Marion Mason, who in the engagement announcement was described as rather petite and very pretty, and belonged to one of the oldest families in Massachusetts. Mrs. Wilson had a deep interest in horses, and she frequently appeared in the paddock.
In the thoroughbred racing world, a paradigm shift occurred when the notorious Gottfried Gottlieb Walbaum purchased the Saratoga Race Course in 1891. He frightened the racing business with his operation of the Guttenberg Race Track near Weehawken, NJ only a short ferryboat ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Operations at “The Gut,” as many publications described it, was a black mark for the turf, where winter racing was staged with little concern for the equine athletes or jockeys.
At Saratoga “Dutch Fred“ Walbaum functioned as track operator, stable owner, bookmaker and faro dealer into the early hours of the morning, for those seeking to challenge the tiger. The legendary gentleman jump jockey Harry S. Page described those days as “squalid,” and further stated that Walbaum’s sport, was “mostly indoor, unfortunately.”
One of Walbaum’s contributions to the Spa which has endured was the classic grandstand with its iconic slate roof, unique turrets and copper trim, so recognizable to many in our time. However, as he used race dates at Saratoga as a weapon against downstate tracks, the racing suffered and purses were shaved down, and some stakes shelved. The 1896 Saratoga racing season was cancelled entirely. It is difficult to understand an unscrupulous individual wrecking so much havoc on a revered institution.
In 1899 G.G. Walbaum told the Morning Telegraph “I am getting old and do not propose to furnish sport for the public and support for the horsemen at a loss. I have offered to lease the Saratoga grounds.” Richard Wilson saw the opportunity to salvage Saratoga.
Wilson’s success and fine reputation brought him respect from his peers, having developed many strong relationships with others in racing. R.T. Wilson wanted to step into the breach and save the reputation that the original incorporators developed at the upstate track, but he logically determined the white knight leading the charge should be a person with a wider scope of experience.
His selection for this role was William C. Whitney, with both political connections and business acumen and the respected wisdom developed from that experience. Whitney was a recent recruit to racing whose entire family had become participants, and who had the faith of the other horseman investors to act as a syndicate centroid that could restore quality racing at Saratoga.
The new Whitney consortium succeeded in purchasing the track at Saratoga in late 1900, and immediately began work to restore the lost reputation. Noted civil engineer Charles W. Leavitt, Jr. was called in and the Saratogian announced he had registered at the Worden Hotel.
A new elliptical paddock was constructed and the grandstand was disassembled, moved and lengthened around a reconfigured new track, which included two chutes tangent to the oval. One chute, for seven furlong contests, was nearly an extension of Gridley Street. The second chute extended the Clubhouse turn into the spectator area, where one mile races would be started.
Following Whitney’s death in 1904, Francis R. Hitchcock became the President of the Saratoga Association, just as a new crisis was forming. Anti-gambling forces focused on horse racing, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes’ dictates threatened the Saratoga area economy. Wilson vigorously opposed adverse turf legislation.
Due to his extensive investment in racing stock, Hitchcock moved his stables to Europe in 1909, resigning as President and Wilson was elected to the post. Racing was banned in New York State during 1911-12. Wilson and other dedicated racing men, such as Harry Buck, remained stateside and managed to restore racing in 1913. The First World War, a global pandemic and Prohibition all occurred on Wilson’s watch, and he shepherded the Saratoga Association through it all.
Wilson made pioneering achievements which have lasted to our time. Enhanced stake events, as well as the annual Fasig-Tipton yearling sales, maintained the highest plane for breeding and racing in the United States. A Newport tradition which Wilson established in Saratoga was a “reading room” for visiting turfmen during the race season. Beginning in 1910 the Reading Room was located in Broadway’s Grand Union Hotel, and in 1946 moved to the present location on Union Avenue at Nelson.
The August 15, 1927 Saratogian reported, “A portrait of the Saratoga Racing Association clubhouse, showing several prominent racing devotees standing in the foreground watching the horses as they are coming out of the paddock, drawn by the noted, portrait painter, William Dowling, nine years ago, is being altered and refinished by the same artist at the commission of R.T. Wilson, president of the association. The picture, which has hung in the Saratoga Reading Rooms since its completion several years ago, is highly prized both for its sentimental and artistic value.” Prints were reproduced as souvenirs, many currently surviving in private collections.
Wilson supervised the construction of present Turf Terrace and Clubhouse, which opened in 1928 and was designed by Samuel Adams Clark and built by W.S. Robertson, who was responsible for many of Saratoga’s notable buildings. The new structure was put in use the same year as the Recreation Center, or Jockey “Y,” also designed by Clark who left a significant record of creativity at the Spa, having also designed the War Memorial pavilion in Congress Park.
As the Roaring Twenties were concluding, late in December 1929, Wilson passed away. His successor, George H. Bull, and the Saratoga Association inaugurated a new race. The Daily Racing Form reported, “The Wilson Memorial is a new addition to the Saratoga Springs stake list. The event, which commemorates the late president of the Saratoga Association. . . will be run at one mile. This distance at Saratoga Springs hereafter will be called the ‘Wilson mile.’”
The first running of the Wilson Stake occurred in August of 1930, and the Glen Riddle Farm’s Battleship Gray, a son of Man o’ War won. In 1938 War Admiral, another Riddle runner and another son of Man o’ War, won the Wilson Stake and reporter Bryan Field wrote in the New York Times, “Mrs. Riddle, who has been ill, watched from an automobile parked in an advantageous spot near the mile chute from which the horses broke.”
The Wilsons were certainly fondly remembered in Saratoga. The inimitable Red Smith, writing for the New York Times many years later, in 1976 lamented the loss of the unique Wilson Chute at the Spa, and
elicited upon Marion Wilson’s stylish attire which he described as including a “hat that measured 6 furlongs around the brim, with a half-acre infield of flowers.”
In the upcoming 2022 season, we will all have an opportunity to watch them break for the mile from the Wilson Chute at Saratoga.
Illustrations, from above: A portion of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map #1 (May 1954) showing the Saratoga Racing Association grounds (the Wilson Chute is marked with an arrow); The New York Herald published this C.C. Cook image of R.T. Wilson August 17, 1919 after Hannibal had won the time honored Travers Stake – journalist Frank Sullivan, the sage of Saratoga once said of Richard T. Wilson, “he was a man of few words. He wore the highest, starchiest ‘choker’ collars we ever saw on a man”; Greg Wolf of Fox Sports interviews Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez in the Saratoga Reading Room, William Dowling’s painting hangs in the background. The Reading Room and the painting are two tangible features of Wilson’s legacy.