The Canoe in the Lake at Saratoga

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence

Most traditions in thoroughbred racing are like the traditions in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” When explaining how a certain religious tradition began, Tevye the Milkman, the principal character in “Fiddler on the Roof,” says, “You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Horse racing traditions are like that. They are from the Tevye the Milkman school of tradition. Nobody knows why, when, or where they got started. They are the customs of the turf, our ancestral traditions.

But there is one tradition in Saratoga that does have a known origin. That is the tradition of painting the canoe in the infield lake at Saratoga in the colors of the owner whose horse won the Travers Stakes. It is a tradition that started with the 1962 racing season when fans going to the track found that the canoe had been painted in the colors of Calumet Farm whose horse, Beau Prince, had won the Travers in 1961.

Interestingly enough, this new tradition replaced a Saratoga tradition of the “Fiddler on the Roof” variety. For many decades, there was a canoe in the lake, and the canoe was painted blue. It was one of the main symbols of Saratoga. Thus, the Troy Times Record could report in 1949 that the Saratoga season was ready since the word had gotten back that the Saratoga swans and the blue canoe were back at the lake. The paper reported that the track superintendent had placed these traditional “symbols of the Spa’s beauty in their usual location.”[1] The Associated Press in that same year noted, “Two old spa symbols, a blue canoe and graceful white swans bob on a breeze on a little lake in the track’s infield.”[2] Major sportswriters like Red Smith, Joe Palmer, and Jimmy Cannon saw the blue canoe as symbolizing the Saratoga racetrack.[3]

Much like “Fiddler on the Roof,” nobody knew the origin of the blue canoe. The sportswriter Peerless McGrath speculated in 1939 “The famous blue canoe is also there—the canoe—which according to legend, provides transportation for bettors who guess wrong back to the metropolitan track at the end of the season, by way of the Hudson River.”[4] New York Post columnist Jimmy Cannon added, There was a pale blue canoe, mysteriously moored and motionless in the middle of the tideless lake in the infield. It is there they say if a horse-player decides to drown himself and changes his mind.[5] New York Herald Tribune writer Bill Lauder wrote in 1959 that the blue canoe had reportedly been in the lake for 91 years. Saratoga track superintendent Anne Clare told Lauder that she had been at the track since 1927 and the blue canoe had been there when she got there.[6]

Famed sports reporter Red Smith may have summed it up best by writing, “There is as there always has been a blue canoe riding on the lake with no one in it and no one around to explain why it’s there. It is the theory of Mr. J. Palmer that the people who originally decided that Saratoga’s lake should bear a blue canoe all died years ago. So naturally, since there’s no one around to explain its purpose, the current operators just go on putting the blue canoe back there for every meeting. Radical changes are not popular here.”[7]

But change did occur  with the opening of the 1962 season. The New York Racing Association decided to emulate Pimlico Racetrack, where the track’s weathervane was repainted annually in the colors of the winner of its major stakes race, the Preakness. The canoe would no longer be blue. It would be repainted annually in the colors of the winning owner of the major race at Saratoga, the Travers Stakes.

Traditionalists were not happy. The Herald Tribune’s Dave Alexander wrote, “I regret to report that the canoe in the infield lake is no longer painted blue. Nobody seems to know where this canoe came from originally, but it has been floating around for more years than you can count on your fingers, if you’re a 10-handed and has always served as an object lesson to the patron whose sole purpose in life is improving the breed. Its mere presence has proved certain things of earth are sacred and indestructible. . . It is in our harried world, one of the few traditions that remain.”[10]

At least in 1962, the traditionalists got their revenge. The Travers was won by George D. Widener’s Jaipur. The Widener colors were blue. The Saratogian could report, “Traditionalists around the track were walking around with a satisfied smirk this morning. All through the meeting they fretted because the familiar blue canoe in the infield lake had been painted in the colors of Calumet Farm, devil’s red and blue, because of Beau Prince’s victory in the 1961 Travers Stakes. This procedure was adopted this year by the New York Racing Association to honor the winning stable of this country’s oldest stakes. On Saturday George D. Widener’s Jaipur won the race and shortly after the day’s program was completed the canoe was taken out of the lake and the new colors applied. Monday morning the newly painted canoe was launched and thefaces broke into a wide grin because the canoe was a light blue, the same as it had been for years and years, with one slight addition—there were several bands of dark blue on the sides. These are the Widener colors light blue, dark blue hoops. Now everyone is happy. Tradition has prevailed. Even the swans appear satisfied; they circled the canoe in formation as though they were saluting an old friend. The moral—don’t fool with tradition.”[11]

The traditionalists were also mollified in 1963. Widener’s horse Crewman won the Travers, retaining the blue color of the canoe. Red Smith, however, was still not particularly appreciative of the change. He wrote, “Every year, practically since the dawn of time, the skiff used to get a fresh coat of dark blue lacquer, but lately they’ve taken to repainting it each August in the colors carried by the horse that wins the Travers Stakes. Someday, Saratoga’s management may come to regret this daring innovation. The mind reels at the thought of a painter trying to reproduce the colors of the Hangover Stable of Ohio, whose silks are decorated with pink elephants or the Hunger Farm, coffee-colored jackets with a donut front and back.”[12]

There has been no return to the blue canoe tradition. Instead, Saratoga now has a fifty-year plus tradition of painting the canoe in the colors of the Travers winner. The Travers tradition is probably as embedded as the tradition of the blue canoe had ever been. Very few racing fans or Saratoga fans can even recall the blue canoe.

Over the years, there have been efforts to divest the canoe from the lake. An effort to rob the canoe in 1968 was foiled by track security,[13] but in 1963 the canoe was successfully liberated near the end of the meet.[14] There is no indication that the heist was planned by Red Smith or by any of the blue canoe traditionalists.

[1] “Saratoga’s Ready—Canoe, Swans Back,” Troy Times Record, July 29 1949.

[2] “Flash Stakes Open Card at Saratoga,” Associated Press, Elmira Star Gazette, August 1, 1949.

[3] Smith once described the smile of jockey Conn McCreary as being  “as wide as the blue canoe which

rides the infield lake.” Red Smith, “The Littlest Trainer,” New York Herald Tribune, August 22, 1961.

[4] Jack “Peerless” McGrath, “A Bit of This and a Bit of That,” Troy Times Record, July 10, 1939.

[5] Jimmy Cannon, “Two-Buckers Crowd Spa,” New York Post, August 5, 1946.

[6] Bill Lauder, Jr.,“Post Time,” New York Herald Tribune, August 4, 1959.

[7] Red Smith, “Views of Sport: Ham and Horseflesh,” New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1947.

[8] Ralph Martin, “Return of Two Stakes Boosts Spa Interest,” Albany Knickerbocker News, July 27, 1962.

[9] Art Hoefs, “The Art of Sports,” Amsterdam Evening Recorder, July 31, 1962.

[10] Dave Alexander, “Spa’s ‘Symbol’ Changes Color,” New York Herald Tribune, July 28, 1962.

[11] “Canoe Is Blue Again,” Saratogian, August 20, 1962.

[12] Red Smith, “Paint Jobs,” Washington Post, August 19, 1963.

[13] Joe Nichols, “Chompion Takes Travers,” New York Times, August 18, 1968.

[14] Ed Susman, “The Great Canoe Mystery,” Saratogian, August 27, 1964.

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