Tales of the famous Travers canoe

The colors of Godolphin Racing’s Alpha (left) and Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket (right) are represented on two canoes in the Saratoga infield lake in 2012 after the horses dead-heated in the 143rd edition of the Travers Stakes. The tradition of the Saratoga infield canoe dates back to the 1920s, and perhaps earlier. The canoe has been painted in the colors of the Travers Stakes winner since 1961. (NYRA photo)
Its origin remains a bit of a mystery, but Saratoga’s famous infield vessel is essential to the track’s storied history

By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director 

Like many of the romanticized stories associated with Saratoga Race Course, the legend of the omnipresent canoe that takes up residence in the track’s infield lake has some gaps in its mythology that are unlikely to ever be filled in.

Since 1962, the famed little craft has annually been connected with the Spa’s most historic event, the Travers Stakes. After Beau Prince won the 1961 Midsummer Derby, the canoe was removed from the lake and painted in the “devil’s red and blue” colors of Calumet Farm before being reintroduced to Saratoga patrons on opening day the following year.

The canoe had been a part of the track’s history for at least several decades — always painted a light shade of blue — before it was rebranded with the Calumet colors. The fresh coat of paint rankled at the delicate sensibilities of many traditionalists.

“I regret to report that the canoe in the infield lake is no longer painted blue,” wrote David Alexander in the New York Herald Tribune. “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 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.”

The infield canoe has long been a Saratoga icon, but for how long is a mystery. In 1959, the Herald Tribune’s Bill Laudner wrote that the blue canoe had been in the lake since the 19th century, but there is no other known documentation to support the claim. Saratoga track superintendent Anne Clare told Lauder she had been at the track since 1927 and the canoe was already in its customary place when she got there.

The canoe became good for a few laughs for sportswriters from time to time. In 1939, Jack “Peerless” McGrath mused that the “famous blue canoe … 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.”

Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post said: “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.”

Red Smith’s philosophy on the tradition of the canoe was a simple one: “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. … 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.”

That was evident by the reaction longtime Saratoga patrons had when they saw the canoe in the Calumet colors for the first time. Those from the old school, however, got a bit of a reprieve thanks to the result of the 1962 Travers. The Midsummer Derby was won that year by Jaipur, owned by George D. Widener, whose racing colors were blue.

“Traditionalists around the track were walking around with a satisfied smirk this morning,” commented The Saratogian. “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 the faces 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.”

The practice of annually painting the canoe in the colors of the Travers winner eventually became accepted and embraced by the Spa crowd. A unique twist to the tradition occurred in 2012 when Godolphin Racing’s Alpha and Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket finished in a dead heat in the 143rd Midsummer Derby. For the first time, Saratoga’s little infield lake became the home of two canoes.

Posted Aug 23, 2022
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