Tag Archives: Never Say Die

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.


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.

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!




Book Excerpt from Never Say Die

Derby Day is just a week from tomorrow! Get in the spirit with an excerpt from this week’s giveaway book, Never Say Die by James C. Nicholson.

Chapter 1: A Historic Derby Triumph and a Wager That Changed History

A quarter million people braved the cold and damp conditions at Epsom Downs on June 2, 1954, to witness the 175th running of the Derby Stakes, one of grandest scenes in all of sport. Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, bicycles and motorcycles brought Britons from every background to the racecourse, less than fifteen miles south of central London. Among the throng was Queen Elizabeth II, who hoped her colt Landau could improve on his stablemate Aureole’s second-place finish in the previous year’s Derby. Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill adjourned a cabinet meeting early so he could attend the festivities. With the surrounding countryside open to the public, a broad spectrum of humanity that included gypsies, touts, gamblers, and fortune-tellers filled the area around the racecourse, contributing to a spectacle unlike any other on earth. Aristocrats drank champagne, while farmers and laborers ate fish and chips and jellied eels and winkles. Carousels and caravans dotted the landscape as last-minute bets were placed while the field of twenty-two three-year-olds made its way to the starting post.

The Derby Stakes itself had its origins in the inaugural running of the Oaks Stakes for three-year-old fillies at Epsom in 1779. The Oaks was named after the racing lodge of the 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley, who leased the building—a renovated former alehouse—from his uncle by marriage, General John Burgoyne (of American Revolutionary War fame). Following a victory by his filly Bridget in the first Oaks Stakes, the lord held a celebration at his lodge. There, the guests agreed that there should be a similar race organized for colts. According to legend, Lord Derby won a coin flip with influential racing official and member of Parliament Sir Charles Bunbury to determine whose name that race would carry. The following year the first Derby Stakes was held, and it was Bunbury who took the winner’s purse with his outstanding colt Diomed. By supporting racing, Bunbury was carrying on something of a family tradition, in that he was married to a great-granddaughter of King Charles II (her grandfather was the illegitimate son of Charles and his mistress, Louise de Kerouvalle).

One hundred seventy-four years later, a chestnut colt called Never Say Die—his name an allusion to a near-death experience at birth—took the lead in the final quarter mile beneath 18-year-old jockey Lester Piggott and galloped on to a two-length Derby triumph at odds of 33–1, to the astonishment of the hundreds of thousands in attendance and the millions listening to the BBC radio broadcast. With that victory, the colt became the first Kentucky-born horse to win England’s great race, and his owner, a “completely flabbergasted” Robert Sterling Clark, became the first American owner to win the race with an American horse he had bred himself. Never Say Die made newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, and the most earth-shattering part of the story was that the winner of the Epsom Derby had been foaled in the United States and was owned by an American. In the Derby’s long history, only one other American-born horse had won—Pennsylvania-bred Iroquois in 1881. No horse born in Kentucky, the commercial breeding center of the American Thoroughbred industry, had ever won the great race.

American horsemen were overjoyed at the news that an American horse had won the Derby. In the Thoroughbred Record, a Kentucky-based weekly publication, columnist Frank Jennings noted that, prior to Never Say Die’s victory: “Repeated failure on the part of Americans in the English Derby not only was becoming monotonous but was downright discouraging. Men of less determination and means than Mr. Clark gradually had become reconciled to the idea that a score in the big race at Epsom was virtually impossible with a colt bred and raised on this side of the Atlantic. Never Say Die did a great deal toward changing this thought and at the same time provided a fine example of the fact that American bloodlines, when properly blended with those of foreign lands, can hold their own in the top company of the world.”


To keep reading, enter to win a copy of Never Say Die. The winner will be announced after 1:00pm today!

Q&A with James C. Nicholson


James C. Nicholson

Recently, we talked with James C. Nicholson about this week’s giveaway book. Check out our Q&A with the author, and get a look inside this one-of-a-kind horse biography.

UPK: Never Say Die seems like a natural outgrowth of your previous book, The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses became America’s Premier Sporting Event, but how exactly did you get interested in the project?


Pete Best

JCN: A few years ago, my dad heard an NPR interview with the original Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best. Pete was telling the interviewer about how his mother, Mona Best, had pawned her jewelry to place a bet on a colt named Never Say Die in the 1954 Epsom Derby. Mona won the bet at odds of 33-1, and with the winnings she put a down payment on a large Victorian house in Liverpool. She built the Casbah Coffee Club in its basement and opened it to local teenagers. The Quarrymen—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ken Brown—were the first act to play in her club and played a regular gig there. They needed a drummer and asked Mona’s son Pete to join the band. He was a Beatle for two years before being ousted in favor of Ringo Starr on the brink of the band’s superstardom.


John A. Bell III with one of his horses

Dad was familiar with Never Say Die because his father-in-law (my maternal grandfather) John A. Bell III raised the horse on his Lexington farm and helped the colt survive a difficult birth by administering some bourbon whiskey to the woozy foal minutes after his birth. Never Say Die’s name was an acknowledgment of his fighting spirit in the first moments of his life.

Dad got in touch with Pete, who happened to be scheduled to play in Lexington with his band later that month. When Pete was in town, Dad gave him a tour of the farm where Never Say Die was born. I met Pete at his show and was intrigued by the story. I started doing some research and found out that there was much more to Never Say Die’s story than just the fascinating Beatles connection.

UPK: The book ties together a string of seemingly unrelated characters all linked to the horse in unique ways. How did you find these connections?


Robert Sterling Clark

JCN: I had a vague understanding that Robert Sterling Clark had some connection to the Singer Sewing Machine Corporation from stories I’d heard my grandfather tell when he was alive. I started with an investigation of that company, which I discovered was the first American multinational corporation. From there, I discovered that Clark himself had a fascinating story that included an alleged plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Research into Never Say Die’s equine genealogy revealed a series of horses owned and bred by the Aga Khan. Each stone I turned over seemed to yield another clue. Eventually I realized that, taken as a whole, these stories encapsulate and illustrate the rise of America’s economic clout in the twentieth century, both in a general sense and more specifically within the Thoroughbred industry.

UPK: How did the English racing industry react to Never Say Die’s victory of the famed 1954 Epsom Derby?

JCN: The English racing community (and American horsemen, for that matter) were shocked that an American horse won England’s greatest race for an American owner. It was widely believed in Europe that American Thoroughbreds did not have the class or the stamina necessary to win England’s greatest race.

UPK: What effect did it have on the industry?

JCN: Never Say Die’s victory in the 1954 Epsom Derby was a “shot heard ’round the world,” putting Europeans on notice that the Kentucky breeding industry was a force to be reckoned with. His Epsom Derby win convinced other American owners, who had been slowly acquiring top European broodmares and stallions since the early 1900s, to take on the Europeans in their best races. They were able to do so because American industrialists had become wealthier than the European aristocrats who had dominated the sport for centuries. Europe had been destroyed by two World Wars and the United States was left as the world’s economic superpower. Once the pattern of American success in Europe became apparent, international buyers flocked to the Bluegrass to buy American racehorses. Within two decades, Kentucky would become the unquestioned center of the Thoroughbred universe.

Enter to win a copy of Nicholson’s book, Never Say Die, by 1:00pm on Friday, April 26, 2013.