This weekend brings the 131st running of the $500K G1 Alabama Stakes for three-year-old fillies at Saratoga. The meet’s second oldest race (after the Travers) and was inaugurated in 1872. Currently run at 1 ¼ miles on the dirt, the race was initially run at a mile and a furlong and after changes to 1 1/16 miles and then 1/5/16 miles, it was finally settled at its current distance in 1917. Now it stands as the third leg of what is known as New York “Triple Tiara,” which also includes the Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park and the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.
Since most stakes races are named for famous Thoroughbred horses, owners, trainers, or institutions, then for whom is the Alabama Stakes is named? Who, indeed. Well this turns out to be something of an Occam’s razor moment: the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. The Alabama Stakes is named for. . . Alabama . . . the state. It seems fairly odd that a New York track naming a stake race only a few years after the American Civil War—which pitted Union versus Confederacy in one of the bloodiest wars in history—should choose to honor a secessionist state. So why indeed name a race “Alabama”? Well, luckily, sports—and sportsmen—can have a way of transcending politics, and the race was so named in honor of Thoroughbred owner William Cottrill, of Mobile, Alabama. He modestly declined to have the race named after him, personally, when approached by racing officials at Saratoga.
English by birth Cottrill came to the United States in 1841 at age 26 and began working with his brother-in-law in the butcher business. Mobile was home to the Bascombe Race Course and it wasn’t too long before Cottrill came into the racing fold. In fact, Cottrill rode in the country’s first hurdle race, which was run at Bascombe in the late 1840s. His involvement in the racing industry steadily grew as he turned his attention to buying and running Thoroughbreds.
During the Civil War, Captain William Cottrill was in command of a cavalry company and once the conflict had ended he purchased the Magnolia track near Mobile. His interests turned to raising and training Thoroughbreds numbering in the hundreds. His racing expanded beyond the south in the late 1860s to include tracks in the north and east as well, finding success in such races as the West End Hotel Stakes at Long Branch (NJ), which he won three years running from 1869 to 1871. Expanding his reach even further in the racing world, Cottrill’s horses began running at tracks in Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The postwar reconstruction of New Orleans’s racetrack, now dubbed Fair Grounds, became Cottrill’s turf, so to speak, as his horses dominated the meets there from the track’s reopening in 1872 until well into the next decade. The 1880s brought the Captain’s greatest racing success with, arguably, his best horse Buchanan’s win in the 1884 Kentucky Derby. His previous attempt at winning the classic race resulted in a second-place finish for Kimball, behind that year’s winner Fonso.
All of these achievements and still so modest as to decline the christening of what would have been the Cottrill Stakes? Hmmm . . . a sportsman and a gentleman. He was admired by fellow horsemen and after his death in 1887, was described as “universally esteemed for his many good qualities of head and heart; . . . he was an ornament of the turf.” 1 By all means a fine choice—I would have named the race whatever he wanted as well!
1. The Kentucky Live Stock Record as quoted by Ron Hale, 2001.