Chapter Six: Sales Week

This is the true story of a little piece of American history.

It is the story of a private, but exclusive, members-only club that was inspired by wealthy men and their love of horse racing. It is a true story about a club that is one of the least talked about, yet one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.  So prestigious, not just anyone could walk through these gates.  It’s a private dwelling that hosts some of the wealthiest people in the country, let alone the entire world.

Last, but not least, it is a true story about a small group of black men and women thriving and surviving in a rich white man’s world.  It’s a behind-the- scenes story of the workers who were the heart and soul of establishing the Saratoga Reading Room as one of the most historic and best kept secrets in Saratoga Race Course history.

Let the story continue…

American Pharoah, Triple Crown Winner

Sales week was usually the third week of the meet at Saratoga.  It was when the horse owners would buy and sell Thoroughbreds to the highest bidder at Fasig-Tipton. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was bought and sold at the Saratoga Sales in 2013.

At the Reading Room, sales week brought many more powerful men, women, and their guests.  It was the busiest time of the summer for us.  We would have packed breakfast, lunch, and cocktail hours. As soon as members, their families, or their guests would leave, we had to very quickly reset the table for another member.  Things were equally fast paced in the kitchen.  Helen, Lou, and the rest of the kitchen staff had to prepare a lot of extra food due to the higher than normal volume of people. Buster, Tattoo, Mike, my mother Ma White, Toye, Russell and even the dishwashers; Dave, Charlie, Duck or Squid were all giving a helping hand to assist in trying to keep up with the added demand.  It was longer hours for everyone, but we were a great team and we would always try to be fully prepared for the rush we knew would come.

This week was when some of the highest profile people would turn up.  There was Mr. Seth Hancock, for example.  He was President of Claiborne Farms, which was famous for breeding and raising world class Thoroughbred racehorses.  In 1984 Claiborne-bred horses topped the list of earnings at $5.5 million.

There was John Galbreath and his son Dan, whose family owned the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1946 to 1985.  In 1986 their estimated worth, as per Forbes, was $400 million.

Ogden Phipps II and his family would sit at my tables. Mr. Phipps and his family were considered, as per Forbes, one of the 50 wealthiest families in America with a net worth of over $6 billion. Mr. Phipps passed in 2016.

Then there was a gentleman named Henryk de Kwiatkowski who also used to sit at my tables. He was from Poland and I can still remember his accent.  Mr. de Kwiatkowski was an aeronautical engineer and made his fortune leasing and brokering the sale of used commercial airplanes. He was the owner of the 1982 Horse of the Year in North America;

Fasig-Tipton

Ogden Mills Phipps, center

Conquistador Cielo.  I remember Mr. de Kwiatkowski was going to give me a tip.  He pulled out this massive billfold and proceeded to look inside it.  After flipping through an enormous amount of $100 bills, he found a lonely $20 at the end of his stack.  For a moment, I thought I was going to get a $100 tip! He was a nice man as well. I used to love his accent. He too has passed. 

There was Mr. Lucien Laurin, who trained the great Secretariat along with the late Mrs. Penny Chenery, who was known as the First Lady of Racing and who owned Secretariat, along with another great Thoroughbred named Riva Ridge.  I remember how stunned everyone was when Onion defeated Secretariat in Saratoga at the Whitney Stakes in 1973.

John W. Hanes, whose family started a sock knitting factory called Shamrock Mills in 1901, also sat at my tables. That company would later become the Hanes Hosiery Mills Co. and then go on to be the famous Hanes underwear company we know today.

There was a gentleman named E.P. Taylor. He created many lucrative businesses including the Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas, which is a playground for the wealthy.  His net worth was believed to be over $600 million.  He passed away in 1989.

Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, would show up during sales week. Woody Stevens, the legendary trainer, would also show up as well. The list goes on and on of high profile, wealthy people who came through the Reading Room gates.

There was lots of partying going on as well amongst the people here to buy and sell horses.  A prominent lady, who loved being part of the social scene, was named Peggy Steinman.  She owned a newspaper and communications company, amongst other businesses, and is widely known for her charitable work in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  She was known to have lavish parties at her magnificent Saratoga home.  She would ask me to bartend parties at her house before they went to the sales.  I would bring along my brother James, cousin Sonny, and my friend John Gordon to work at the bar we would set up by the pool.

Penny Chenery, First Lady of Racing

It was such a laid-back atmosphere working these parties.  Guests would come after the track (but before the sales) to eat, drink, and unwind before taking care of business. I even had my mother come over and work alongside Mrs. Steinman’s kitchen staff.  They were mostly of Jamaican descent.  My mother became good friends with Lucille, the main lady in Mrs. Steinman’s kitchen.  It was fun working Mrs. Steinman’s parties.

During the sales week, a gentleman named Mr. William Harder would ask me to come to his house and bartend for a celebration of his buying and selling horses for some of his friends and family.  He used to love his Makers Mark Bourbon.  I liked Mr. Harder.  He would always say, “Stewart, how much I owe you?”  Before I could answer, he would always add, “I’m not cheap now,” meaning he was going to give me whatever I asked for.  Three hundred dollars for a couple of hours wasn’t bad at all.  I did those parties for a few years.  It was fun mingling with them, and I loved the extra money.

Back at the Reading Room, sales week was very profitable for everyone.  We worked extra hard that week and even though we made plenty of money and were all appreciative of having a successful week, after seven days of continuous running, we were all looking forward to the pace slowing down.

The Reading Room during the ‘80s was constantly changing.  The staff continued to be black and the members continued to be rich and white, but the gender was changing on the membership side of things.  Women members were becoming more prevalent. If a male member died and was married, a letter from the Board of Directors was sent expressing their condolences and welcoming their wives to keep up their membership and become an honorary member.  The honorary membership list for women now included the names of some local high-profile women, such as Saratoga's own, Socialite Mary Lou Whitney, who passed in the summer of 2019 and was the widow of C.V. Whitney before being remarried. Mrs. Anne Palamountain, whose husband  Joseph was the former

President of Skidmore College, and  Mrs. Adelaide Eddy, whose husband  Spencer was a lawyer who also served on the State Harness Racing Board and was also a former VP and Director of the Adirondack Trust Bank, and Ellen R. Bongard of Schuylerville, New York, is also a favorite of mine .

 

I had to add this little special relationship that I developed with an older gentleman by the name of Mr. John Munroe, who used to stay in one of the rooms upstairs at the Reading Room. He was a really close friend of C.V. Whitney.  Mr. Munroe would ask me to drive him to various places.  I had a 1986 black Subaru at the time.  It was a real sporty car, with a sunroof that I could remove and place in the trunk. I used to open the doors for Mr. Munroe as if it was a limousine and chauffeur him around town in it.  Numerous times I would drop him off at the Whitney Mansion on Cady Hill in Saratoga.  It was funny to me, using my little Subaru to chauffeur him around.  I developed a real nice relationship with Mr. Munroe.

It was so much fun working our summers at the Reading Room. Saratoga was known as “The August Place to Be” and having a summer job at the Reading Room was like icing on top of a great cake.  I enjoyed the camaraderie of our staff.  I enjoyed the relationships we built with some of the members, and I really loved the money that we made.  Most importantly, we enjoyed the tradition of being a predominantly black staff continuing to carry on a tradition that lasted for decades. Things were going so well.  I along with my friends envisioned many more summers at the Reading Room We had no clue that the hammer would suddenly drop and shatter that idea.  My head is still spinning with how fast it all went down. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘change is gonna come” and at the Reading Room, that change would come as a shock to all of us!

Click here for the final installment: Chapter 7: The Beginning of the End

For previous chapters: Chapter One: The Beginning
Chapter Two: The Old Guard
Chapter Three:  Sports Celebrities
Chapter Four: The New Breed
Chapter Five: Changing Times

 

John Galbreath, former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Seth Hancock, President of Claiborne Farms


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