The New York Racing Association (NYRA) has four “giveaway” days planned for the 2023 Saratoga Racing season, which kicked-off today. This tradition, while the supply lasts, has been a standard at the Spa for decades. This year’s red and white swag includes a cooler jug, a T-shirt, a bucket hat and a tote bag.
Souvenirs date back to the earliest visitors at Saratoga Springs, wanting to return home with a tangible memento of their visit to the Spa, in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses early on recognized this desire of visitors, and devised of a plan for a valuable keepsake early in the twentieth century.
An English illustrator, William Dowling, who earned his living creating authentic likenesses for popular magazines, presented a notion he had to the track administrators in 1917. He conceived of a group painting of members and patrons of the Saratoga Association, widely known around New York and eastern race tracks, on the greensward in front of the Clubhouse on a typical day at the races.
Dowling’s conception captured individuals intimately involved with racing, with some of them grouped in realistic conclaves, demonstrating the friendly dialog, conviviality, and interaction which daily took place during the race meet.
Dowling was present daily trackside at Saratoga, and able to capture likenesses of those to be presented, along with the idiosyncratic gestures and postures of his subjects while in this auspicious yet comfortable venue. The artist sketched portraits of striking likeness with pencil on site, creating a scene which he set into a landscape and action view.
The artist captured several men in military uniforms, as the United States was in a state of war with the Central Powers in Europe at that time.
Three horses are shown in the painting moving from the saddling paddock toward the track, and while they cannot be identified, the silks of their owners are discernable in the hierarchal order of the Saratoga Association; the green and old-gold of President Richard T. Wilson, the Eton blue and brown of Vice-President Harry Payne Whitney and Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Miller’s cardinal with white sash and black cap. The backdrop is the marvelous Clubhouse designed by H. Langford Warren, with its distinctive twin turrets flanking each end of the charming double-deck porch.
Clarence H. Mackay, noted financier and the champion racquet player in America, who also had breeding and racing interests in France, is depicted looking up from his race program to address companions. They are Major Cassatt and Captain Perry Belmont, a veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I, who had joined William C. Whitney in the 1900 purchase of the Saratoga Race Course. Captain Belmont appears to squint against the sun, as Major Cassatt, sporting a bowler, is clasping his ever-present cigarette holder.
Payne Whitney is close by in suit and skimmer. He was the son of W.C. Whitney, Yale Class of 1898, where he captained their nationally famous crew, and four years later married Miss Helen Hay, daughter of the Secretary of State; they later purchased a house on Phila Street.
F.H. Von Stade with skimmer, bowtie and program in hand talks to John Sanford, as the master of Hurricana Stud Farm in nearby Amsterdam carries his distinctive cane over his left arm, apparently in deep discussion about the prospects for the day’s card.
Harry K. Knapp, proprietor of the Onyx stable and a Jockey Club steward at Saratoga, whose health had been a source of much anxiety among his friends, chats with Major Thomas Hitchcock of the Army Air service.
Clustered near the center of the painting and speaking among themselves are Major August Belmont, who never arrived at the track without an umbrella, resting upon that device; Andrew Miller, thoroughbred owner and Jockey Club steward, who professionally was the founder and publisher of Life magazine; Richard T. Wilson, president of the club; and Joseph E. Widener, an art collector whose hands did much to mold horseracing, shown in collar, jacket and tie, white trousers with skimmer and carrying a cane.
Behind this foursome stands William C. Whitney’s eldest son, Harry Payne Whitney, the owner of Cady Hall in Saratoga Springs, shown in three-piece dress, white trousers and Panama hat, clamping down on his cigarette as he fervently consults his program.
Nearby is dapper owner-breeder Willis Sharpe Kilmer of Binghamton in bowtie and skimmer, who by time the Dowling painting was completed would have the Kentucky Derby winner (Exterminator) and Travers Stakes winner (Sun Briar) in his barn.
William K. Vanderbilt, Sr. one of the founders of the Jockey Club, is engaged in conversation with his friend, the financier Schuyler Parsons and Frank C. Bishop, both of whom have their binoculars with them.
Captain Harry La Montagne, who is in uniform and smoking while standing with a group that contains C. Allen Arthur (standing akimbo), General Cornelius Vanderbilt of the New York National Guard, in uniform, who served in France, speaking with William R. Coe, whose home on Long Island is presently Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park.
Nearby is owner George D. Widener, whose father and brother were lost on RMS Titanic, who was installed in the Racing Hall of Fame in 2021.
Others shown are racing secretary A. McL. Earlocker, sporting a fedora and speaking with trainer Thomas J. Healey. Two remarkable steeplechase riders who also owned horses, Harry S. Page and F. Ambrose Clark, are part of the group. Kentucky Senator Ollie James is depicted in western garb, including a Stetson.
Trainer Sam Hildreth is shown in a white summer suit, binoculars around his neck, his final resting place is just down Lincoln Ave from the track. Francis R. Hitchcock and Edward B. McLean, who purchased the Hope Diamond for his wife, walk together. Trainer A.J. Joyner stands near the rear, seemingly ready to give out the “Rebel Yell” he was known for.
Architect Samuel Adams Clark, who would design the revised Turf Terrace Clubhouse, and Edward Motley Weld, sportsman and cotton broker, wearing a bowler, are grouped near Frederick Johnson and Samuel Ross.
Jockey Club members William Woodward, A.K. Macomber and Robert L. Gerry are gathered together.
Harry A. Buck, son of the late publisher of The Spirit of the Times who courageously stood up for racing during the governmental ban, is shown in skimmer and ever-present spectacles speaking with Col. E.R. Bradley.
Admiral Cary T. Grayson, George H. Bull, Harry P. Sinclair are grouped near the rear along with Gifford A. Cochran, Algernon Daingerfield, Victor Schaumburg and retailer Marshall Field. The artist cleverly separated0 those that did not get along.
Sam Riddle is flashing a beaming smile, perhaps much the same expression as when he obtained Man o’ War at the Saratoga yearling auction. Walter M. Jeffords, who married Riddle’s niece, is shown nearby in a fedora.
John McE. Bowman, sporting a skimmer, entered racing as an immigrant groom, later becoming a thoroughbred owner and track operator while developing a successful national business brand, the Biltmore Hotel chain, is perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches story in turf history.
Famous breeder and horseman John E. Madden, along with Irish tenor and Saratoga fixture Chauncey Olcott, and F. Skiddy Von Stade with a pipe firmly clenched in his teeth look on near the bridle path.
Legendary rider and complete sportsman, Foxhall Keene is shown speaking with cartoonist Bud Fisher, who originated the Mutt & Jeff comic strip, which funded his racing enterprise. Perhaps due to their professional illustration connection, William Dowling and Bud Fisher were close friends. Fisher is the only individual in the painting who is not wearing a hat. There are no women in the work, which, along with all the hats, speaks to the custom of the time.
William Dowling took the sketches he made during the 1917 season to California, and with the aid of the abundant sunshine available there, painted a composite work of racing’s personalities at the Spa which measured 5’ by 4’. The painting was very popular with all who saw it, and given that some portrayed had passed away before Dowling completed the work, the sentimental and historic significance of this rare grouping was realized.
In conjunction with the opening of the rebuilt race track clubhouse in 1928, Saratoga Association President Richard T. Wilson commissioned William Dowling to recreate the work, adding a number of portraits not in the original painting. President Wilson next ordered photogravure reproductions of the picture made by the F.A. Ringler Company, on Barclay at Church Streets in Manhattan, who had perfected the process of electro-type plate etchings used in the illustration of high quality publications.
The Ringler sepia-toned reproductions of the Dowling painting included a key to identify the 71 individuals, and were made available by the Saratoga Association to all who wanted to acquire what the officers of the Association were sure would become a highly prized souvenir of the turf in this country. Their determined effort was targeted toward a grateful posterity, who would be certain to appreciate the illustration of their pathway. The original work has always hung in the Saratoga Reading Room, and many of the Ringler reproductions survive in private collections.
Interestingly NYRA, the management successor to the Saratoga Association, adopted the formula of a portrait artist capturing racing personalities in a composite mural when they selected Pierre Bellocq, professionally known as PEB, in conjunction with rebuilding the Aqueduct Race Track in 1959.
Saratoga souvenirs, tokens of remembrance of people and place can be transported home, or might transport you into the past.
Illustrations, from above: Photogravure reproduction of the William Dowling painting produced by the F.A. Ringler Company for the Saratoga Association in 1928 (Author’s collection); August Belmont, with umbrella, Andrew Miller, Richard T. Wilson and Joseph E. Widener are portrayed in conference in the Dowling image (Wilson and Widener wear their Jockey Club lapel pin); Binghamton owner-breeder Willis Sharpe Kilmer as portrayed with his paddock badge in the Dowling image; The hatless Bud Fisher and sportsman Foxhall Keene are seen chatting in the Dowling image; Gentleman Rider Harry S. Page who famously rode with two monocles, as portrayed in the Dowling image; and Greg Wolf of FOX Sports interviews Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez in the Saratoga Reading Room, as William Dowling’s original painting hangs in the background.