There were only 14 horses at Saratoga Race Course in late July of 1961. By that time, it was expected that at least 200 would have arrived for the racing season. Strikes led by Jimmy Hoffa and a branch of the Teamsters Union, Local 917, halted the transportation of horses from New York City to Saratoga Springs.
The Teamsters sought representation in labor negotiations for approximately 1,200 backstretch workers at the Belmont and Aqueduct racecourses. These workers formed picket lines outside the racetracks which the Teamsters refused to cross. No horses were to be delivered until better pay and improved working conditions were granted to track workers.
Horse owners, who normally decided wages for these workers (who were mostly Black and Hispanic), refused to negotiate with the Teamsters. This left them in a difficult position. Who was going to bring their horses to Saratoga Springs? Some tried to hire non-union trucks and drivers (scabs), but there was violence on the picket lines in New York City.
A stabbing occurred on July 22, which involved both union and non-union workers. That same day, a truck operated by non-union drivers was pelted with rocks as it attempted to deliver horses to Aqueduct, six strikers were arrested. The risks of crossing the picket lines was serious and deterred horse owners from employing non-union labor.
During the days that followed, the strikes and picketing continued while negotiations between Teamsters and the State Labor Board were at a standstill. Consequentially, horses were not being delivered at a rate that would ensure races could proceed as scheduled. With about a week until opening day, the Saratoga racing season was put into question.
Tensions mounted as this news spread and the Mayor of Saratoga Springs, James Benton, reached out to the State Labor Board, the Chamber of Commerce, the State Mediation Service, Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. According to Benton, everyone he spoke to assured him that racing would proceed as scheduled, despite the lack of progress between Teamsters and the Labor Board.
Perhaps trying to circumvent these complications, Benton went straight to the top and spoke with Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa on July 25th. Aside from his role as mayor, Benton was the owner of the Grand Union Motel on South Broadway and was involved in many city projects. He well understood that his and many Saratoga resident’s livelihoods could depend on the business generated during the 24-day racing season. Hoffa was also aware of this and used it to his advantage in negotiations, making it clear Teamsters would only transport horses once labor demands were met.
In the meantime, plans for using trains to move the horses had been quietly formulating. Railroads were an outdated method of transportation at that point, but the equipment needed for the task was still available. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) employed “special cars,” for the use of transporting horses and on July 26 the Delaware & Hudson Railroad was seen putting up a “horse siding,” at their West Circular Street depot.
On July 27, the first train carrying horses arrived successfully. As early as 5 am, 60 people gathered outside the D & H depot to watch the horses unload and parade to their stables. In a way, this was reviving an old tradition, albeit against the will of the city. Back when horses were normally brought by rail, people would gather to watch as they were unloaded and then guided across Broadway and down Union Avenue to the Saratoga Race Course. The event was symbolic of mid-summer and assured citizens that the city would soon be booming.
A total of three trains and eight trucks arrived between 3 am and about noon that day, bringing a total of over 100 horses. The trucks were able to make the trip undisturbed thanks to protection given along the way by state police, city police, local sheriffs, and Pinkertons.
The operation continued into July 28 and approximately 400 more horses arrived. This shift in momentum, from no horses to suddenly over 500 horses delivered in two days, coincided with a break in the Teamsters’ position. A spokesman for the Eberts Van Co., one of the major horse transporters that was previously honoring the picket lines, said that six of his seven drivers went back to work. The next few days were relatively peaceful, and Saratoga Springs continued to receive horses uninterrupted.
On July 31, opening day of the races, the front page of The Saratogian announced, “Fans, Horses, Stream to Racetrack.” With nearly 1,300 horses on the grounds and over 12,000 people attending, the race card was run as usual that day. Only a handful of picketers were seen outside the gates of the track that morning and although the labor dispute would continue through the following months, in the end the owners won the battle, and eventually the war against improving the track workers wages and conditions.
Read more about Saratoga Race Course history.
Special thanks to Chris and Larry Benton for sharing stories about their father, Mayor James Benton, and offering their insight regarding the lead up to the 1961 racing season.
Matt Bonk graduated from SUNY Albany in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in History and is currently working at Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa as a museum assistant and has recently curated the new exhibit “A Saratoga Family Tale.”
Illustrations, from above: Horse transport trucks at Saratoga Race Course in 2019 (Matt Bonk photo); the Saratoga Backstretch ca. 2020 (Fred Brenner); and union membership in the United States, percentage of employed workers from 1960-2020 (OECD Trade Union Dataset).