Tag Archives: James C. Nicholson

John Morrissey: Rogue, U.S. Representative, Racing Icon

Though there won’t be another historic Triple Crown win at Belmont Park this year, racing history looms large in New York state. Just north of Elmont—where the Belmont Stakes are run—is Saratoga Springs, home of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and Saratoga Race Course.

sm_MorrisseyThe third oldest racetrack in the United States, Saratoga Springs saw its first thoroughbred race card on August 3, 1863, organized by John Morrissey, who was at the time operating a  gambling house in the resort town. An Irish immigrant, an enforcer for Tamany Hall, a professional boxer, and a prodigious gambler, John Morrissey was—if nothing else—an unlikely candidate to become one of the most important figures in the history of Thoroughbred racing. But despite being the kind of man who made a fortune in the Gold Rush, won fame as a prizefighter, found political success through Boss Tweed’s machine, and challenged William Poole (better known as “Bill the Butcher”), Morrissey’s name has escaped many history books.

Nicholson_FinalNow, James C. Nicholson (author of The Kentucky Derby and Never Say Die), finally does justice to this rags-to-riches story in The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Nicholson traces Morrissey’s remarkable life while also shedding light on fascinating issues of the era, such as the underground prizefighting economy, the rancorous debate over immigration, and labor laws that protected owners more than workers. He digs most deeply, however, into the business of Thoroughbred racing and Morrissey’s role as the founder of Saratoga Race Course.

In advance of this year’s Belmont Stakes, and the start of Saratoga’s racing schedule, we spoke with Nicholson about Morrissey’s improbable life and why Saratoga and its founder are instrumental to understanding of horse racing’s history.

How did you first get introduced to Saratoga Race Course and John Morrissey’s story?

I worked at the horse auctions in Saratoga for a few summers during college and grad school. Unglamorously, my most important duty was helping remove horse manure from the facility. After work, some of my fellow “muck crew” members and I would often trot over to the nearby racetrack to catch a race or two. I was fascinated by the little pieces of folklore and anecdotes about “the old days” that were casually passed around by racegoers, but it was difficult to know if someone was talking about 150 years ago or fifteen years ago. Some of those stories included vague allusions to John Morrissey, who, I learned, had operated the casino at the center of town and had been responsible for bringing Thoroughbred racing to Saratoga. He sounded like an intriguing character, and, in doing research for my first two books, I was surprised to learn that relatively little had been written about him in over a century.

What led Morrissey to begin his career as a political enforcer and his involvement with gang violence?

Morrissey came to the United States from Ireland as a small child, and he grew up quite poor in the lively little town of Troy, New York, on the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, with seven sisters, an alcoholic mother, and an unskilled father. He was an ambitious young man and realized early on that his ability to endure a beating was perhaps his greatest personal asset. In addition to jobs in factories as a preteen, Morrissey was a bouncer in a tavern and worked on riverboats as a deckhand. He was surrounded by rough crowds throughout his adolescence, when fighting was both entertainment and a means of survival for many young men in upstate New York. After moving to New York City in his late teens, Morrissey’s toughness continued to serve him well. He worked as a political enforcer for the Tammany Hall political machine and as an immigrant runner, meeting new arrivals on the docks and helping to find them work and shelter in exchange for political allegiance to Tammany.

Morrissey had several encounters with William Poole, who was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film The Gangs of New York. Can you describe their relationship?

Poole was a butcher by trade, and he led a New York City gang called the Bowery Boys. Leonardo DiCaprio played the rival of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character. DiCaprio’s character contains elements of John Morrissey. Morrissey, an Irish-Catholic Democrat, and Poole, a “native” American Protestant Know-Nothing, were bitter rivals within the ethnically and politically charged environment of mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. The two men had tense encounters within the saloon and sporting circles in which they operated, and Poole beat Morrissey nearly to death in a well publicized encounter months before Poole was killed by Morrissey’s associates in a Broadway tavern.

It would be a stretch to call the film historically accurate, but it does capture some of the spirit of that era. The film does a good job conveying the notion that New York’s Five Points district was a hotbed of violence, poverty, and corruption, and it effectively depicts the deadly hostility between nativists and immigrants, as well as the political power of Tammany Hall. But the film plays rather loose with historical events and historical figures. Perhaps the most glaring creative liberty taken is the fact that Poole was actually murdered in 1855 following a barroom dispute with Morrissey, while, in the film, the Poole character is killed in the New York City draft riots of 1863. But Gangs of New York does accurately portray Poole as a virulent nativist who wielded serious local power.

sm_Morrissey boxingMorrissey turned from criminal to prizefighter, eventually becoming national champion. Today boxing has various sanctioning organizations and clearly defined weight classes. That wasn’t the case in Morrissey’s time, can you elaborate on the differences?

When Morrissey entered the American boxing scene, fights were governed by the London Prize Ring rules, which were far more permissive than the Marquess of Queensbury rules (published in 1867) that modern boxing fans would recognize. In Morrissey’s era, fights were conducted without gloves (“bareknuckle”), and the rules permitted grasping and throwing, but not gouging, biting, or low blows. A round was completed when one fighter was knocked to the ground, and there were no limits as to the length of a fight—some lasted well over 100 rounds. There were no official weight classes, and prizefights had to be conducted in semi-clandestine fashion, as the sport was outlawed nearly everywhere in the United States.

There were also no formal boxing federations like the ones that would emerge in the twentieth century. Championships were largely determined by public acclaim and recognition by the sporting press. That process was less unwieldy than it might sound, however, as the sports community was relatively small and insular by modern standards, and a large percentage of the major figures in American boxing could be found in one of a handful of New York saloons that catered to the sporting crowd. In 1849, Tom Hyer was universally acknowledged as the finest fighter in the nation, earning the informal title of Champion of America following his victory over Yankee Sullivan. When Hyer retired in the early 1850s, Sullivan staked a dubious claim to Hyer’s title by virtue of having been the last fighter to lose to the champion. When Morrissey beat Sullivan, he took the title. Morrissey’s defeat of Hyer’s hand-picked challenger, John C. Heenan, in 1858, cemented his claim to the American championship, as well as his place of honor in the annals of boxing history.

How much of Morrissey’s past was brought up in his campaign, did this have a large effect on his chances? Was it unusual to have that kind of background as a politician in that era?

No one had ever seen someone with Morrissey’s checkered past and deep involvement with boxing and gambling rise so quickly in American politics. Journalists were highly critical of his candidacy for Congress, but, much like what we have recently seen with Donald Trump, the attention that newspapers paid to Morrissey only added to his status as a celebrity and ultimately helped him to appeal to voters.

Describe Morrissey’s connections to Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall? Without their backing do you think it would have been possible for him to win?

Tammany Hall was the major power broker in New York City Democratic politics from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Morrissey had ingratiated himself to Tammany leadership by providing muscle in local elections. Those relationships facilitated his subsequent election to U.S. Congress. Morrissey eventually had a falling out with Boss Tweed and the Tammany Democrats, and he led an insurrection that contributed to Tweed’s downfall. But without Tammany’s early support there would have been no way a man with Morrissey’s past could be a congressman.

sm_Saratoga

What makes Saratoga such an important facet in the American Thoroughbred industry?

One of the most appealing aspects of horseracing, in addition to the wide variety of participants and enthusiasts it attracts, is its connection to the past. Nowhere is that connection more tangible than in Saratoga. Generations of racing fans have made Saratoga an annual destination, and the well-preserved Victorian architecture there provides a tangible link to a bygone era. The presence of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame right across the street from the racetrack serves as a reminder of the deep history of racing at Saratoga, which, for over 150 years, has attracted wealthy industrialists and financiers, itinerate gamblers, vacationing families, and vagabond horsemen. This hodgepodge of humanity was an integral part of the festive atmosphere at Saratoga race meets 150 years ago, and it remains so today.

James C. Nicholson is the author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event and Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry. His newest book, The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course is available now.

African Americans and the Kentucky Derby: A Long and Storied History

African American Jockeys Kentucky Derby

Jimmy Winkfield rides Alan-a-Dale in the Kentucky Derby in 1902.

“Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings.”—Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1875

As we look forward to the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, we are reminded that it is impossible to talk about the “greatest two minutes in sports” without also talking about African American history. The two are inextricably tied. Of the fifteen riders at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to victory with the help of trainer Ansel Williamson, a former slave.

In the early days of American horse racing, many of the jockeys were slaves, who, after emancipation, continued working as trainers and riders for their former owners. Black jockeys won half of the first sixteen Derbies, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight, and most of the trainers were African American as well.

Baden Baden horse Edward D. Brown

Baden Baden was trained by Edward D. Brown, and ridden to victory by Billy Walker in the 1877 Kentucky Derby.

There was plenty of fame and fortune to be found for successful trainers and riders. At the third Kentucky Derby in 1877, the rider-trainer duo of Billy Walker and Ed “Brown Dick” Brown, guided Baden-Baden to a win. Ed Brown was one of the most successful trainers in the country and famous for his expensive suits and large bankrolls. Brown’s career in racing spanned more than 30 years as a jockey (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1870), a trainer, and as an owner. His horse, Monrovia, won the Kentucky Oaks in 1893. His filly, Etta, won in 1900. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.

Some of the best-known names of the era were the jockeys. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton still holds the record as the youngest-ever Kentucky Derby winner. At the age of 15, he won the 1892 Derby astride Azra. Isaac Burns Murphy was very well respected by his fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, and fans across the country. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. James “Jimmy” Winkfield almost eclipsed Murphy’s record in 1903, when he placed second in what would have been his third Kentucky Derby win in a row.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Winkfield was also the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Since 1911, when Jess Conley finished third, only three other black jockeys have ridden horses in the Derby. As James C. Nicholson writes in The Kentucky Derby:

“In fact, black riders were forced out of the sport by jealous white jockeys and bigoted owners and trainers in an increasingly racially biased American society whose court system had given official sanction to various Jim Crow laws by the end of the nineteenth century. As the Derby became increasingly popular on a national scale in the twentieth century, blacks still played indispensable roles in the lives of racehorses and the sport of horse racing. But grooms, hot-walkers, and stable hands operated far from the spotlight that would shine ever brighter on top athletes, including jockeys.”

This Saturday, as the riders take their mounts and as we celebrate the horse-trainer-jockey team who take their victory lap around the winners circle, take a moment to remember history and the men who should never be forgotten.

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This post originally appeared on our blog on April 26, 2015.

At Long Last, A Triple Crown Winner

Sir Barton, the first horse to capture the American Triple Crown, with jockey Earl Sande. (Cook Collection, Keeneland Library, Lexington, Kentucky.)

Sir Barton, the first horse to capture the American Triple Crown, with jockey Earl Sande. (Cook Collection, Keeneland Library, Lexington, Kentucky.)

In the weeks between American Pharoah’s 2015 Kentucky Derby win and his dominant victory in the sloppy Preakness, and then during the lead-up to the Belmont Stakes, the hope in the hearts of many was similar: that this impressive three-year-old would finally break the thirty-seven year drought between Triple Crown champions. And on Saturday, American Pharoah did just that in spectacular fashion.

For those less directly connected to the Thoroughbred industry than those of us here in Kentucky, the world of horse racing can perhaps feel removed—a legacy sport of the landed gentry. Yet, in The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event, author James C. Nicholson describes how three special races have come to transcend the sport itself and define the pinnacle achievement of Thoroughbred racing.

At the heart of the series, of course, is the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Since 1920, the Triple Crown has become the yardstick by which outstanding three-year-old Thoroughbreds are measured.

In the realm of sport, the term Triple Crown had first been used to describe three English horse races: the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger Stakes. American racetracks had attempted to establish racing series along the English model, but none achieved lasting national recognition. By 1930 the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the Kentucky Derby, and the Belmont Stakes in New York had clearly risen above all other American races for three-year-olds. That year Gallant Fox captured all three events and was referred to by the New York Times as a “Triple Crown Hero.” Five years later, Gallant Fox’s son Omaha matched his father’s feat (and the pair remains the only father-son combo to win the American Triple Crown). Once the term entered the popular vocabulary of sports fans and journalists in the 1930s, Sir Barton was recognized after the fact as the first to accomplish the feat in 1919.

Churchill Downs had moved the Derby from its traditional place on the opening day card to the second Saturday of the meet in 1923 in order to avoid a conflict with the Preakness, which was held the week prior. This arrangement continued until 1932, when the Derby was moved to the first Saturday in May, where it has remained, with two exceptions, ever since. The Derby was popular before the Triple Crown was even recognized. It could have survived with or without the Triple Crown. However, the association with the most important series of races in the country certainly raised the prestige of each of the races, including the Derby.

Matt Winn [the human face of the Kentucky Derby for almost fifty years] recognized the potential for a national Triple Crown series consisting of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont and was an early proponent of a bonus to be presented to the winner of all three races, but the racetracks that hosted the events failed to cooperate. In fact, at least as early as 1919 Winn had proposed a Triple Crown modeled after the English version but consisting of three races run exclusively in Kentucky: the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Latonia Derby near Cincinnati, and a third race to be created at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. The Kentucky Triple Crown never came to fruition, but the Kentucky Derby was certainly a beneficiary of the increase in media attention paid to the American Triple Crown series beginning in the 1930s. That acknowledgment of the American Triple Crown gave the three races, including then Derby, a small connection to the history and prestige of the English version on which the American Triple Crown was based.

Prior to Saturday, many wondered whether we would ever see another Triple Crown champion. Now, with American Pharoah’s ascension into the ranks of Sir Barton, War Admiral, and Secretariat, we’ve been reminded that the Triple Crown is achievable but that it takes a truly special horse to deserve the title and those just don’t come around every year.

A California Horse Runs for the Roses

This Saturday will be here before you know it, and with it comes the 140th Kentucky Derby! As you prepare to place your bets on some of the fastest horses in the world, consider what our guest blogger, James C. Nicholson (author of Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby), says below about California Chrome.

 

Each year, on the first Saturday in May, Kentucky takes center stage in the American sports world as the nation’s top three-year-old horses compete in the “Run for the Roses.” For over a century, Kentucky, along with its history, mythology and associated imagery, has been part of the spectacle that captures the imaginations of the scores of thousands who witness the Derby at Churchill Downs and the millions who watch on television. This year, as sports journalists struggle in their annual attempt to assign personalities and backstories to the various equine contestants at the Derby, Kentucky will find itself sharing the spotlight.

California Chrome, image via Google

California Chrome, the early favorite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, is a California horse. The Derby will be the colt’s first race outside of southern California. He was born in California, the result of the mating of an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, where the majority of American equine bluebloods hail from Kentucky, to be a California-bred is to come from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.

California Chrome’s seventy-seven-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, is also a Californian. He began a lifetime in horse racing as an exercise rider on the California circuit in the 1950s, and in1955 he accompanied Swaps, one of the horses he galloped, on a four-day train trip from Los Angeles to Louisville. The journey proved to be worth the effort, as Swaps became only the second Cal-bred to win the Run for the Roses.

Victor Espinoza, image via Google

Many of the story lines that journalists will attach to California Chrome will be predictable. His septuagenarian trainer has paid his dues in the sport of horse racing but has never won a Derby. Sherman’s connection to one of the greatest Derby champions of the twentieth century will only add to his “good guy” appeal. Chrome’s owners – one is an engineer in California, the other installs magnetic strips onto credit cards in Nevada – will be portrayed as “regular guys,” appropriately matched with their under-pedigreed horse. The fact that they reportedly turned down an offer of $6 million for a ½ interest in California Chrome will no doubt become a part of any number of newspaper columns during Derby week. The colt’s California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza, won the Kentucky Derby in 2002, but has fallen off in recent years. A Derby victory could jumpstart his career. Each of these story angles has become well-trodden ground in the past two decades at the Kentucky Derby: the elderly, dues-paying trainer; the blue-collar horse with blue-collar owners; and the past-his-prime jockey. But the fresh spin this year will be the tie that binds this cast of characters – California.

Because horses cannot speak, sportswriters have great leeway in the creation of storylines for the Derby, and the narratives that reporters gravitate toward at Churchill Downs during Derby week tell us much about the pervasive values and tastes of a given era. Over the past two decades, the most popular story lines have been those that purport to confirm the notion that anyone can succeed in America and that hard work and patience are, in the end, rewarded.

If California Chrome prevails on Derby Day, those angles will almost certainly be included in race descriptions in newspapers across the country. But the idea that California Chrome is a California horse will also be a major part of journalistic coverage, which should serve as a reminder of the central role that geography has played in the popularity of the Derby itself for well over a century.

 

A big thanks to James C. Nicholson for guest blogging! Be sure to catch the Derby this Saturday evening, and be sure to read Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby if you want to know more about the tradition of horse racing!

              

 

 

James C. Nicholson Wins Kentucky Historical Society Award

04-29-31_james-c-nicholson_originalUniversity Press of Kentucky author James C. Nicholson has been named as the recipient of a 2012 Kentucky History Award given by the Kentucky Historical Society for his book The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event. The KHS recognizes publications in five categories each year, categorizing them by budget size. Ellis received his award in category E (for projects with the largest budget) in recognition of his exemplary historical publication. The Kentucky History Awards recognize outstanding achievements by historians, public history professionals, volunteers, business and civic leaders, communities, and historical organizations throughout the Commonwealth. The KHS encourages organizations, individuals and communities across the state to nominate deserving projects and individuals for their efforts to promote the preservation, awareness, and appreciation of state and local history.

The awards ceremony will immediately follow the KHS Annual Meeting at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort on Friday, November 8 at 5:30 pm. The Kentucky History Awards ceremony is free and open to the public, but reservations are required by Friday, Nov. 1. Contact Julia Curry at julia.curry@ky.gov or 502-564-1792, ext. 4414, or visit www.history.ky.gov/historyawards for more information.

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event

In The Kentucky Derby, Nicholson offers a look at the evolution of the Derby as well as its international, national, and regional importance. He details the Derby’s existence as an intersection of past traditions and contemporary culture, for both Kentuckians and Americans, and examines the historical, political, and cultural significance of horse racing’s most famous event. Few festivals and gatherings have maintained such a delicate balance between exuberant glamor and local approachability as the Kentucky Derby—the brightest jewel of the Triple Crown.

Who Will Come in First for Our Kentucky Derby Giveaway?

9780813135762And our countdown to the Derby has begun! In just shy of a week, people from all across the globe will watch from Louisville’s Churchill Downs, from spirited Derby viewing parties, or maybe just from the comfort of the couch as the fastest two minutes in sports crowns another winner with the blanket of roses and the attention of millions. So this week, in honor of one of our state’s most beloved events, we’re giving away a copy of the award-winning The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event by James C. Nicholson.

In The Kentucky Derby, Nicholson argues that the Derby, at its essence, is a celebration of a place, existing as a connection between Kentucky’s mythic past and modern society. The Derby is more than just a horse race—it is an experience enhanced by familiar traditions, icons, and images that help Derby fans to understand Kentucky and define themselves as Americans. Today the Kentucky Derby continues to attract international attention from royalty, celebrities, racing fans, and those who simply enjoy an icy mint julep, a fabulous hat, and a wager on who will make it to the winner’s circle.

As Tom Hammond, NBC’s Kentucky Derby Host said of the book:

“What is it about the Kentucky Derby that causes people who will not see another horse race all year to pay attention? The answer, James C. Nicholson explains, lies in the Derby’s image being intertwined with that of Kentucky. The popular perception of the state as both genteel and untamed is played out in the event itself. In the early days of the Derby, an imagined link to the mythological Old South added to the appeal. Now, in the twenty-first century, the Derby has become an all-American sports experience. The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event goes beyond the colorful history of the race and examines the reasons behind its popularity. It is not only an enjoyable read but also very enlightening.”

Enter our giveaway by Friday, May 3rd at 1PM for your chance to be a winner too!