- Historic Sites
Saratoga Springs, New York
THE FIRST ANNUAL AMERICAN HERITAGE GREAT AMERICAN PLACE AWARD
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
It was summer, and school was out. Richard came up to Saratoga. The mountains, the country, incredible. It was a different world. There was no hot water in the backstretch; if some was needed for treatment of a horse or for its warm mash, you heated with propane what you drew from a pump and stuck in a sack of corn for yourself and your pals to go with burgers bought at the little backstretch stand or what you got from the fruit truck coming around. Everybody always had a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter on hand. In the afternoon Richard the exercise boy-rubbermuck outer-hot walker went to the clubhouse, picked out someone dressed nicely who looked as if he had some money, and did touting a little more grounded in likelihood than that of the gents with the Green Card and Orange Card of guaranteed winners on Union Avenue. “I’d say I galloped this horse, or one of my friends did, and the horse is ready to win.” If in fact the horse did win, Richard made himself available, and maybe he’d be given twenty bucks.
Richard gave one man five straight winners over the course of a few days. The man remarked on a Saturday that he had to work the next day so he couldn’t be out to the track but that he wanted to blow his benefactor and his friends to a steak dinner at the Old Firehouse Restaurant on Broadway, meet him there. The kids went on their bikes to find the horseplayer in cassock and Roman collar. “Uh-oh! What’d we say in front of him?”
Migliore worked up to be a jockey whose mounts to date have won some eighty million dollars, 10 percent going to him. He proposed to the girl now his wife in front of Saratoga’s Lyrical Ballad bookstore, as quirkily musty, crowded, little, and no less reminiscent of one’s picture of Dickens’s London than its name. It’s as evocative of past days as the little Adelphi Hotel across Broadway, a mini-version of the vanished splendors and lost glories and departed era of the Grand Union and United States hotels, still hanging on and done up in high style, bringing to my mind what I imagine a really good bordello must have looked like in the days of Grover Cleveland. Migliore so loved this Saratoga of potted flowers hanging everywhere that he bought a house there and found winter equally entrancing; there’s a celebration where they don’t plow Broadway and everybody dresses in Victorian attire and goes about in sleighs. The horseplayer priest married the Migliores and later christened their three sons.
Migliore came to Saratoga at the right time. Had he arrived a decade or two earlier he would have biked around a place that for many years had been going downhill. Time had bypassed the Queen of the Spas. Auto routes there were awful; you crawled north through little towns along Route 9. (The days of the railroads and the Saratoga trunk of ironbound, round-topped, open-mouthed immensity waiting to be filled with great clothing for the summer campaign—all that was déclassé by the end of the First World War.) And the gambling houses were finished, driven out by reformers. This town had been made by faro games and roulette and high-stakes poker. The former American heavyweight champion under the London Prize Ring Rules, John Morrissey, also rather improbably a U.S. congressman, had put into action the first of a dozen gambling places. Then, a month after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he opened the racetrack. Racing was legal, of course, but while casino gambling was not, everything was on a high plane and continued so under the reign of Richard Canfield, Morrissey’s successor as Prince of the Gamblers. The authorities looked the other way, only occasionally erupting into seizures of righteousness that called for temporary closure of the leading casino, which stands today in Congress Park among the winding walkways and little lake and statuary and fountains of a place designed in part by the creators of New York’s Central Park.
Then the Prohibition-era gangsters of quite a different tone took over, and Saratoga in summer became the setting for flashy types who didn’t know which fork to use. Prostitutes thronged Broadway. World War II came, and the track was shut down for a couple of years; the railroad cars that transported the horses were needed for other purposes. After the war vacationers sought other destinations.
The final smash was Sen. Estes Kefauver’s 1950s hearings on organized crime, which identified gambling as the prime source of the Mob’s income. The gambling places closed permanently, those in town and those out at Saratoga Lake, where Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Sophie Tucker had performed for café society people who looked and acted like George Raft. That was the end of that run. Saratoga turned shabby. The United States Hotel was razed in 1946; the Grand Union, which didn’t even serve meals anymore, six years later. The city historian Martha Stonequist remembers her father remarking soon after that you could buy a North Broadway mansion, with all the furnishings, for six thousand dollars. Where the great hotels had once stood, there were now used-furniture outlets, places where you could rent a rug cleaner for a day, discount houses, and —sticking in the craw of old Saratogians—a Grand Union supermarket on the former site of the Grand Union Hotel. The parking lot was filled with big sinkholes formed by the decomposing roots of the ruthlessly cut-down great trees. There was even talk of closing the track.