Saratoga reveals legendary link of boxing, horse racing

7/24/2007 - Boxing

"Friday Night Fights" is headed to The Spa. I apologize for the vision of Teddy Atlas sitting in a mud bath with cucumber eye patches. That's not the kind of spa I'm talking about. If you're from the Northeast Corridor, or play the ponies, you know The Spa is the nickname for Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It is among our country's original summer getaways.

At the end of the last century, Sports Illustrated named Saratoga one of the 10 greatest sporting venues in the world. This week, it will be home to one of the best sports doubleheaders I could ever dream up. "Friday Night Fights" (9 p.m. Friday, ESPN2) at the City Center, followed by the first ever Breeders' Cup Challenge (4 p.m. Saturday, ABC) at the oldest track in America.

The BC Challenge is horse racing's answer to college basketball's March Madness. "Win and you're in" is the theme. Four top-level races, in four divisions, with the winner getting an automatic spot in the Breeders' Cup this October. It's like the ACC tournament with underdogs gunning for an NCAA berth. Although Todd Pletcher's mighty stable might have more blue chippers than the combined rosters of Roy Williams and Coach K.

On the boxing side, it's also "win and you're in." NFL legend, and lifelong fight fan, Bill Parcells will be ringside as ESPN's special guest analyst. The Big Tuna is going to check out the Big Future. Undefeated Andre Berto (18-0, 16 KOs) is in the main event against capable veteran Cosme Rivera. Power-punching Berto, 23, is the most-heralded prospect in the sport. If he can win, he is in as a legitimate top-level welterweight contender.

The co-feature bout also has "win and you're in" opportunity. It includes Chazz Witherspoon, whom many are tabbing as America's hope to reclaim heavyweight glory. Fittingly, heavyweight glory is the reason Saratoga is on the sports map to begin with.

Having grown up in the area, spending so many August days at the track, I have always been intrigued by Saratoga's past. A look into that history uncovers a man beyond anything the current sports scene, or even a creative screenwriter, could produce.

From every seam of its 143-year-old wooden slats, Saratoga racetrack is full of character, and it was founded by the ultimate character.

The history books tend to claim New York City business and social elites William Travers, John Hunter and Leonard Jerome as the founders of the famed track. However, the man behind those men was a little rougher around the edges. Make that much rougher.

He is likely the greatest American legend you have never heard of. John "Old Smoke" Morrissey's résumé is nearly beyond belief. But believe this, the 1800s Irish immigrant founded Saratoga racetrack. It's what happened in the previous 33 years of his life that will floor you.

The past few years, I have read numerous articles on this subject matter. Much as with many legends of yesteryear, there are differing accounts. However, I trust many of these facts more than the Wild West biographies of the same era. These weren't campfire tales originating from Tombstone; this was 19th-century New York.

Morrissey struggled through an impoverished childhood before growing to be an intimidating young man. As an adult, he was more than 6 feet tall and nearly 350 pounds. By age 17, he was a bouncer at a brothel. By 18, he was an Irish mob enforcer. At 19, Morrissey took his street toughness and cashed in on prizefighting. Through it all, he also was savvy enough to teach himself how to read and write.

In the mid 1800s, America had yet to have organized professional sports to worship. Respect and notoriety often were claimed by the toughest man around. Morrissey was that man. It's how he earned his distinctive nickname.

Reports of the details differ, but the end result was the same. A widely accepted fight description is that Morrissey was dueling with a rival gang member. The scrap was a wild affair. Morrissey was thrown to the ground onto burning coals from an overturned fire. His opponent was on top of him, punching away as the flesh on Morrissey's back was being seared. Somehow, Morrissey turned the tables, rose to his feet and pummeled his rival while smoke was steaming off his shoulders. It was the stuff of instant legend.

The hot handle was earned. "Old Smoke" it was. His fame came from his flame!

Morrissey was big, powerful, fearless and now New York famous. More East Coast fame would have to wait for West Coast jackpots. Morrissey jumped on board the gold rush and headed to San Francisco. The only successful mining he found was digging into the pockets of gamblers. The future seeds of Saratoga were planted out there. Morrissey made a small fortune at the tables while still challenging any bare-knuckle brawler willing to take the test.

Old Smoke wanted the ultimate test for himself. He went back to New York for a title fight with heavyweight kingpin Yankee Sullivan. Morrissey took him out in the 37th round. Old Smoke became an icon. It was 1853, and Morrissey was our country's first real sports superstar.

He came and went from the prizefights for the next five years. His attention shifted to New York power and politics. Old Smoke made things happen. He was a businessman, a gambler, an acquitted murder defendant and, through it all, a famous figure.

He was part Bugsy Siegel, part Mike Tyson. He was part Steve Wynn, part Sonny Liston. He wasn't just something out of a Hollywood movie; his life was various Hollywood hits. "Gangs of New York" meets "Rocky." "Deadwood" crossed with "The Sopranos." Then there was a big piece of "The Great Gatsby." The upper-crust society would be his, too.

By the late 1850s, Old Smoke cashed out and went to upstate New York. His gambling rackets were still running hot through his veins when he settled in Saratoga Springs.

Morrissey put away his Irish gang exterior and turned on his social charms. He was dressing and playing the part. The famous fighter soon won over the elites in the Spa City, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. Morrissey sped into the next phase of his already remarkable life, opening an upscale casino in Saratoga. Yet he knew he needed more. He knew bigger was always better, and bettors were always better!

In 1863, Morrissey purchased an old fairground track on Union Avenue and formed the Saratoga Racing Association. He persuaded his New York power brokers to join in and front the project. Morrissey then positioned Travers, Hunter and Jerome to construct a larger track across the street. That one still stands to this day.

Morrissey's popularity then stretched from being the hero of the immigrant Irish to being the legendary ring great of the American sportsman and, of course, to being the gambling guru to the ultrawealthy.

What could possibly be next for Old Smoke? How about serving two terms in Congress. Don King's "Only in America" never fit so well.

Morrissey died at 47. Flags flew at half-staff as tens of thousands attended his funeral. Mobster, heavyweight champ, gambler, politician and the founding father of the Saratoga racetrack. John "Old Smoke" Morrissey, the greatest American legend you never knew. Now you know.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."