As the eyes of horse racing enthusiasts worldwide turn to New York and the Belmont Stakes this week, another storied racetrack prepares for its summer meet less than 200 miles north. The Saratoga Race Course owes much of its history to its sometimes forgotten founder, a brawler turned congressman, John Morrissey. From gang member, political muscle and prizefighter to New York state senator, United States congressman and industry leader of the sport of kings — John Morrissey (1831–1878) was all of these and more.
In "The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course," historian and University of Kentucky alumnus James C. Nicholson traces the remarkable rags-to-riches story of one of the most colorful characters in the sport of horse racing. Morrissey began his career as an enforcer for Tammany Hall and rose to become a well-respected businessman who served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In this new book published by University Press of Kentucky (UPK), 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 deeply into the business of thoroughbred racing and Morrissey’s role as the founder of Saratoga Race Course, the longest continually run thoroughbred track in the United States.
The track that New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith called “The dowager queen of American racing,” however, still stands as a lasting legacy to Morrissey’s place in both American history and the "sport of kings," as well as an emblem of the American dream. The author, James Nicholson, who holds a law degree and doctoral degree in history from UK, is also 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."