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John Morrissey “The Lion of Saratoga”, his vision and perseverance that launched thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs in 1863 Photo by: Library of Congress

Irish American Heritage Museum celebrates “The Irish and Horse Racing: John Morrissey”

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John Morrissey “The Lion of Saratoga”, his vision and perseverance that launched thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs in 1863 Photo by: Library of Congress

The Irish American Heritage Museum presents its newest exhibit “The Irish and Horse Racing: John Morrissey” in downtown Albany.

The exhibit tells the story of John Morrissey, “The Lion of Saratoga,” whose vision and perseverance launched thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs in 1863. Today, Saratoga Race Course is the oldest, continuously operating sports venue in the United States.

“Since the community is celebrating the 150th anniversary of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga this year, we feel that John Morrissey’s accomplishments in racing, sports and politics deserve showcasing. He was a remarkable individual, able to rise from the humblest of beginnings in Troy, NY, taking every opportunity to raise himself and provide for his family and friends,” explains Ed Collins, board chairman of the Irish American Heritage Museum.

“Johnny Morrissey’s enduring legacy is the Saratoga Race Course, one of the most revered race tracks in the world. Thanks to him, Saratoga thrived as the premier gathering of race horses, and continues to thrive today.”

When John Morrissey came into this world in 1831, there were few to welcome him in the plain cottage in Templemore, Tipperary, Ireland.  When John Morrissey left this world in 1878, he was ushered into the hereafter by bishops, Congressional leaders, New York politicians and citizens of Troy and Saratoga Springs, New York, by the thousands.

Morrissey’s story is that of the 19th century immigrant in America. Leaving Tipperary when he was a baby, Morrissey’s family settled in Troy, NY, in 1833. He grew fierce; working as a mill laborer at 12, then as a ruffian on the docks of Troy and New York City. He became a Tammany Hall enforcer, then gambling operator and racetrack and sporting impresario. Along the way he was the national bare-knuckle boxing champ. Later on, Morrissey was elected to Congress and the New York State Senate.

Once he accumulated the resources to acquire the niceties to which gentlemen of the day were accustomed, Morrissey expanded his business and gambling interests beyond New York City. Seeing a void in the racing circuit caused by the conflict between the North and the South in the Civil War, Morrissey came up with the idea of holding a meet on a trotting track in the upstate resort of Saratoga Springs in August, 1863. He put together a race card that drew the top horses and most affluent owners at what is now the Oklahoma Track. In 1864, he purchased the land across the street, the current site of Saratoga Race Course.

Morrissey chose well, for Saratoga drew the upper echelon of a sector of society that was looking for entertainment. In time, a core group of socially prominent businessmen joined with Morrissey and formed the Saratoga Racing Association.  Under Morrissey’s tenure, Saratoga became the foremost racing venue during the reconstruction period following the Civil War. To this day, 150 years later, hundreds of thousands of racing fans enjoy the racing paradise of Saratoga that all began with John Morrissey’s vision. 

The exhibition, “The Irish and Horse Racing: John Morrissey”, features photographs, illustrations, newspaper accounts, music, and costumes. Exhibit-goers will listen to selections of music popular in Mr. Morrissey’s day, including an Irish folk song boasting of his fighting prowess.  National Geographic’s “Ballad of the Irish Horse” will be shown daily at 1pm. Funding for “The Irish and Horse Racing: John Morrissey” is from the Charles Lawrence Keith & Clara Miller Foundation and the Government of Ireland.

The new exhibit, wholly developed by the Museum, is open to the public through August from Wednesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 noon to 4 p.m.

The suggested donations for admission are: $3 adults, $2 seniors and free for children 14 years of age and younger.  Museum Memberships are also available upon entry.  Donations and memberships help fund the Museum’s educational programs.

The Museum is unique in the United States, where 36 million people claim Irish ancestry. The Museum is committed to the tenet that preserving one’s heritage is vital to providing a cultural and historical foundation to future generations of Americans.

The Irish American Heritage Museum was created by New York State Legislation in 1986 and permanently chartered by the New York State Education Department in 1992 as a 501c3 non-profit educational institution.  The Museum’s mission is to preserve and tell the story of the contributions of the Irish people and their culture in America, inspiring individuals to examine the importance of their own heritage as part of the American cultural mosaic.

For more information visit www.irishamericanheritagemuseum.org.

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