Posted by Gabe Weintraub
Racing has a long history in Saratoga Springs. Most only associate the town with horseracing, but the city's past is also deeply linked to the history of competitive rowing in the U.S.
This weekend, Saratoga Rowing Association plays host to the Head of the Fish Regatta, the second largest regatta in the country, by volume of boats entered. The 2.3-mile course along Fish Creek will be flooded with almost 1,600 individual entries representing 167 clubs, hailing from 12 states and three countries.
The regatta was first held in 1986, making it relatively young compared to other major regattas in the country – the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta has been contested in Philadelphia since 1953. Nonetheless, rowing runs deep in Saratoga Spring's history, and is even intertwined with the city's more famous pastime: horseracing.
Rowing is one of the oldest organized intercollegiate sports and Saratoga Lake has been the site for top regattas since the late 19th century. In July 1874, the Rowing Association of American Colleges hosted the University Race for the Championship at Saratoga. The three-mile, nine boat race was the first intercollegiate athletic championship of any sport in the U.S.
"All of the major Ivies had boathouses in Saratoga," said Chris Chase, the founder of Saratoga Rowing Association and regatta director for the Head of the Fish.
At the time there was also some connection with the horseracing community, with the track underwriting crew activities, according to Chase. Horseracing brought with it a culture of gambling, however, and the Ivies eventually chose to leave for reasons of integrity.
According to Chase, the sport had lost its following in Saratoga by the late 1960s. The Saratoga rowing community lay relatively dormant until 1986 when a group of oarsmen, led by local architect Tom Frost, held the first Head of the Fish Regatta as a fundraiser to help buy a racing shell for their new club.
"One of the underlying factors was that they took a lot of tension out of the regatta," Chase said. "The original rule was if you protested [a judge's ruling] then you got kicked out. They didn't want uptight people there. They just wanted to row and race and have some fun."
That first iteration of the regatta drew only about 30 boats and a few hundred people, according to Chase. When he took over the race from Frost in 1999, there were around 650 entrants. This year he expects close to 1,600 entrants and nearly 9,000 attendees.
The nature of the race has changed slightly to accommodate its popularity. "We're way too big today to not have rules followed," Chase said. "We do take the competition more seriously since some of the best teams from the east coast and Canada are here, so we're more strict than we used to be."
"Early years were more of a Woodstock affair," Chase said. "People would come and row and have a few beers. There are people who have come here every year since '86. The race has come a long way and in some ways the carnival affair is gone. We're parking 85 trailers and hosting eight-to-nine thousand people. Keeping everyone safe is a big deal."
The regatta still retains some of the quirk and novelty from its early years, however. "We have the most unique trophies of any race," Chase said, "They're all actual fish heads." Every year Frost gathers fish heads from around the waterway, embalms them and mounts them on plaques. Frost also decorates the trophies. "He makes them really unique to each event," Chase said. A trophy for a boat of older, master rowers might feature a pair of bifocals, for instance. "He [Frost] is still doing it," Chase said. " It's incredible what he does. They're works of art. People come here just to win a fish head. That's easier said than done. Some of these events have 50 boats." Frost, it is worth noting, is not a fisherman and collects the fish as donations.
Part of the draw comes from the course itself. Fish Creek is rarely disruptively choppy. Saratoga Rowing Association hosts four regattas for junior level crews every year; more than 60 major events since Chase took over as direction. "In that time, I think I've lost two, maybe three days of racing due to weather," he said.
That consistency is enticing to teams looking to fill their fall schedules. "You only get a certain number of weekends in which to race during the fall," Chase said. September is too early because teams need the time to train and get back on the water. That leaves October before winter when weather starts to play a factor. "You narrow it down to like four good racing weekends," Chase said. With big-name events like the Head of the Charles in Cambridge, Mass. holding long-standing claims to specific weekends already, the options get even slimmer. "That's how you choose how to end your season," said Chase, "that's a big deal."
For many of the novice rowers in attendance, the Head of the Fish will be the first and only chance to compete this fall. "Rowing takes a long time to learn," Chase said. "A lot of teams promise their freshmen that this will be their first and only race. Getting here and getting on the water is a big deal. It's not like baseball or basketball where you play a lot of games." Chase also said that the Head of the Fish is particularly appealing because of its distance. "It's long enough to make it respectable," he said, "but short enough to make it possible to do multiple races."
That will be the case for Skidmore novice crews, who will get to make their racing debuts on their familiar home river. In fact, the course for the Head of the Fish begins at Stafford Bridge – directly in front the Skidmore Boathouse. The course runs to the mouth of Saratoga Lake, with the finish line near the former location of the Route 9P Bridge. The bridge, which has historically been a landmark for coxswains to steer by, was closed and dismantled in September. It will be replaced during the winter.
Although Skidmore will be competing, fall season head races are lower priority than spring sprints, and Head Coach Jim Tucci says he prefers to treat the races as glorified training sessions, adding a competitive change of pace to what would otherwise be a monotonous fall season.
The Head of the Fish also serves as a de facto reunion for Skidmore rowing alumni. The open and masters categories afford graduates the opportunity to row together again.
This year the two-day event will see collegiate, open and masters boats race on Saturday, and then juniors and high school boats on Sunday. Saratoga Springs High School has an extremely well respected program. According to Chase, the area has one of the highest concentrations of junior rowers in the country, with more than 1,000 participants between Saratoga Springs and Albany. Additionally, he anticipates that after this fall, SRA will have trained more than 100 rowers who have received scholarships at Division I colleges.
Local masters programs, for post-collegiate rowers, are also a highly regarded. This August, masters boats from SRA, Skidmore Community Rowing and the relatively new Queensbury Rowing Center earned more than 15 medals at the 2010 USRowing Masters National Championships on the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey.
"It's pretty amazing that two of the best adult teams in the country are here, separated by just a two-mile stretch of water," Chase said.
Crew does not carry quite the same prestige as thoroughbred racing, but it makes its presence felt in the Saratoga Springs community. Chase anticipates that 45,000 people will visit Saratoga Springs this year for rowing events. "The history of rowing goes a long way in New York and Saratoga," Chase said. "In rowing, all roads go through Saratoga."