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Horse Racing Museum Is a Winner

October 12, 1986|LINDA STEWART | Stewart is a New York free-lance writer

SARATOGA, N.Y. — In a handsome Georgian-style building across the street from the main gates of the Saratoga Racecourse is the National Museum of Racing.

Horse lovers find it fascinating. But this small museum holds equal fascination for anyone who is curious about the social evolution of America, from its days as a colony up to the present.

The first display is a dazzling array of racing silks. The first tunic, purple with red sleeves and a black velvet cap, are identified as "The Queen's Colors." Beside her colors are brown-and-white silks labeled "Sir Winston Churchill."

The custom of identifying a jockey by an owner's colors originated in 1762 in Newmarket, England. In the United States, owners must register their colors with the Jockey Club for a small annual fee. Bright colors, easily spotted in the back stretch, are the favorites. But since duplication is forbidden, any Johnny-come-lately who didn't have colors registered by an ancestor is obliged to add hoops around the sleeves, stripes or other designs to front and back. More than 200 sets of racing silks are displayed, all identified by name.

Beyond the first case of racing silks, hanging inconspicuously in a small framed box, are two thin curves of white metal, delicate as a girl's bracelets. Those were the horseshoes, or "racing plates" as they are called, nailed to the flying hoofs of Longfellow, who, in 1870 was nicknamed King of the Turf.

Not Named for Poet

Sports writers, extolling the speed of the Kentucky-bred colt, romantically wrote that he had been named for the poet. Actually his owner, "Uncle" John Harper, watching the newborn foal wobble up onto his exceptionally long legs, chose the name with nary a thought of poetry.

The trappings of the 19th-Century bookies--a chalk slate with a thong so it could hang from a tree limb and a chamois eraser for fast changing of the odds--are displayed beside the child-size boots of Eddie Arcaro, five-time winnerof the Kentucky Derby and winner of almost 5,000 other races.

Throughout the museum hang portraits, landscapes and racing scenes, by some of the great names in the world of art. None are more appealing than those of Sir Alfred James Munnings, whose work earned him a place in Britain's Academy of Fine Arts. One gallery is given over to the handsome paintings of Edward Troye, generally acknowledged to be the greatest equine artist of the 19th Century.

The names of famous horses are engraved on the title plates of one oil painting after another: Man O'War as a 2-year-old, American Eclipse who never lost a race, Cavalcade, Equipoise, Secretariat, Native Dancer, Ruffian who in 1975 broke her leg in the race against Foolish Pleasure.

Portrait of Washington

One wing is devoted to portraits of men and women in the world of racing. It's an illustrious company, headed by George Washington, whose likeness is done by Rembrandt Peale. Not only did Washington breed and race horses, he served as an official at many meets held near Mount Vernon. On a table in front of his portrait stands a larger ornate silver punch bowl, a gift from the Prince of Wales. There is a king's ransom of silver trophies on display, every one burnished to a fine gleam.

Remember the scales on which the old Aga Khan was annually weighed? There he sat in his armchair, the roly-poly ruler of Islam, while the other side of the scales was balanced out with golden ingots--his gift, on his birthday, to his subjects. The scales displayed in the museum, used at Saratoga for weighing jockeys from 1906 to 1946, look like the Aga Khan's. Constructed of mahogany and tufted leather, it's a handsome and archaic-looking piece of equipment.

The museum serves as a Hall of Fame for the world of thoroughbred racing. It's an eclectic and democratic commemoration of owners, trainers and riders. They range from the grandson of slaves to millionaires whose names are heard as often on Wall Street as they are in the winners' circles of tracks here and abroad.

A gift counter offers books, post cards, key chains and other souvenirs. The museum itself is a fascinating collection that guarantees a long-lived recollection to any visitor.

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