Racing's Hall of Fame Evolved From Humble Beginnings

When the National Museum of Racing opened in 1951, it was but a single room in the Canfield Casino in Congress Park, just south of downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The space was on loan from the city, and although the names behind it were lofty, its beginnings were humble.

Today the museum has its own building, but visitors don't have to drive to New York to experience some of racing's most historic moments. Its dynamic Web site offers the same interactive information available in the museum on each of the Hall of Fame's 318 inductees, from streaming video of Man o' War with Will Harbut to color photographs of Julie Krone and Winning Colors, two of last year's inductees.

Nearly a decade of discussion and a year of active planning preceded the founding of the museum. Saratoga Race Course, the country's oldest racetrack, had been drawing racing's most successful and wealthiest patrons since the 1890s. Among them were C.V. Whitney, the first museum president; Carleton F. Burke; Walter M. Jeffords, its second president; F. Skiddy von Stade, president of the Saratoga Association; and George D. Widener, chairman of The Jockey Club.

Today's racing fans might say Kentucky, which houses the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, is a more sensible location for racing's museum of milestones, but in the beginning, the National Museum of Racing's founding in New York gained strong support. The city of Saratoga Springs donated $2,500. The Saratoga Association, which shared a number of its directors with the museum board, kicked in $5,000. After a meeting of the museum's organizing committee, a Daily Racing Form writer noted, "The National Museum of Racing...has been recognized as a vital need for many years, both by the leaders of the sport and by the citizens of Saratoga, who have come, quite properly, to regard the Spa as the spiritual capital of the sport." Whether or not it remains the epicenter of racing's spirituality, Saratoga Springs and the museum appeal to racing enthusiasts and historians nationwide.

Many pieces of artifacts, artwork, and memorabilia housed at the museum draw in those visitors. Because its founders owned the best horses and artwork of the highest quality, the National Museum of Racing's holdings have been impressive from the first item donated for display: a shoe worn by the stallion Lexington. Of the initial 27 items loaned or donated, three came from Widener and eight from Whitney. Although Queen Elizabeth was not instrumental in founding the museum, a set of her silks was among the earliest donations.

In 1951, a journalist speculated, "It may be five, or possibly 10, years before the National Museum of Racing becomes big enough to need a building specially designed for the purpose." In reality, it could have used a building from the beginning. However, it only took four years after its inauspicious opening in the Canfield Casino before the museum moved to a colonial red brick building across the street from the racetrack. That same year, the first class of inductees went into the Hall of Fame: 10 horses and six people.

Von Stade's son, John, is now president of the museum's board of directors. His first memory of the museum dates back to 1957. "I remember walking up the steps of a very imposing building and walking into the main area and seeing lots of pictures on the wall. It was very colorful, but there was no rhyme or reason for anything."

With help from museum director Peter Hamill and numerous curators, the museum, its exhibits, and records are in a little better order.

In recent years, that effort was pushed forward by Paul Mellon, both through his urging and donations. Mellon owned exquisite collections of art and books, and was a patron of many public institutions, including the National Sporting Library. In 1977, Mellon called for the museum to expand, and it did, adding a new wing. In 1988, he pushed for another renovation, to improve a museum he described at the time as "bland and unexciting." He said in its place should be an illustration of "a sport which should be seen as full of life, speed, and vibrant color."

Mellon died in 1999, but his previous commitment to the cause continues to bring that life to the museum. A $1-million-plus donation left in his will is one of the museum's largest single gifts to date. It seeded the $8.3 million needed for last year's addition that created an extra 14,500 square feet of display space.

The museum continues to attract visitors with a bevy of free outreach programs and special exhibits. In the past, free handicapping seminars have preceded events like the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup races. During the meet, top personalities and Hall of Fame members stop by, formally and informally, to see the museum, sign autographs, or to participate in discussions. Timely exhibitions, like "Seabiscuit," which opened in July, exemplify the museum's unwavering efforts to reach new fans while serving racing's faithful.

Since moving to its Union Avenue location in 1955, the National Museum of Racing has been extensively renovated five times, at an estimated cost of more than $14 million. It continues to look forward to using new technologies to bring racing even closer to its visitors, while still keeping a watchful eye on the history of the 300-plus years of Thoroughbred racing in America.

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