National Museum of Racing Introduces New Exhibits as Part of ‘Reimagined’ Hall of Fame

In August 2017, on being named president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, John Hendrickson summarized his vision for expanding the appeal of the 67-year-old Saratoga Springs, N.Y. institution to a simple philosophy.

“It’s not just our job to showcase history,” Hendrickson said that day. “We have to reach out and promote the sport. The museum has always done traditional things well, and we want to maintain the prestige of the place, but we have to go out and engage the next generation, which gets information through smart devices.”

That meant technology. And it meant thinking beyond the usual. Some 5 ½ years later, even after closing for eight months in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and for renovation — the National Museum of Racing has embraced the challenge with a steady stream of new interactive, more inclusive and unconventional exhibits, programs and partnerships that have broadened the appeal. The strategy is working: 2022 attendance at the Hall of Fame was up 10% from the previous year.

“John really brought a lot of energy and wanted to be aggressive in turning the Hall of Fame into a destination where visitors came once a year if not once a season,” National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Director Cate Masterson said. “We’d ask people, ‘When was the last time you visited the Hall of Fame?’ And they’d say, ‘Been there, done that.’ It needed to change. We wanted to be a year-round destination.”

Visit the handsome red-brick building on Union Avenue — the one with the line of decorative jockey statues in front and across the street from Saratoga Race Course — and the change is apparent. The history of the game is there as always. So is “the new,” which, fortified by an updated website and a more prominent social media presence, creates a rich mix of offerings with, “a lot of freshness to it,” as a staffer put it.

“We’re giving horse racing enthusiasts a reason to visit the Hall of Fame on a regular basis as opposed to every few years through updating our exhibits more often, new events, and expanded programming,” National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Communications Director Brien Bouyea said. “And we’re building a fuller schedule of year-round events to draw the non-racing or more casual fans. As John presented his vision, we took it as a real opportunity to reinvent ourselves.”

New offerings include the introductory 16-minute film What It Takes: Journey to the Hall of Fame, narrated by Bob Costas, which conveys the exhilaration of the sport, the passion behind its heritage and some of the stories of “what it takes,” as the title suggests, to be among the best of the best in the Hall of Fame.

Filmed and produced by Donna Lawrence Productions, the film highlights Hall of Famers such as Javier Castellano, Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day, D. Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, and John Velazquez, among others.

Even the theater itself has been upgraded, with the film screen dropping from the ceiling and viewable from theater-in-the-round seats. The old Hall of Fame gallery is different as well with nine interactive stations featuring in-depth digital plaques for each of the 470 Hall of Fame inductees, which replaced the plaques. The exhibit features more than 100 videos and 2,500 photographs.

Other new exhibits and programs include:

Betting on America—The Immigrant Experience and the Hall of Fame: Opened last summer, the Hall’s first bilingual exhibit chronicles the lives and impact on the sport of Hall of Famers born outside the U.S. The exhibit features interactive content, artwork, memorabilia and photography in telling their often-inspiring stories.

Educational Tours for Students: Introduced last month by museum educator Matt Reichel, the series of five 90-minute tours are ideal for teachers looking to enhance hands-on learning. Depending on the age, students get an up-close and personal tour of the museum’s extensive collection of equine paintings and sculptures, as well as an opportunity visit the archives to learn how museums preserve history. Grade-schoolers get a chance to draw their own jockey silks, examine horseshoes, and experience racing on a simulator.

Race Day Gallery: This new exhibit features displays of the paddock, track, and winner’s circle,  giving visitors the three essential elements of a day at the races. From racing equipment, artifacts and graphics to images of some of the most striking paddocks and racetracks in the U.S., the exhibit showcases Thoroughbred racing at its best. It also puts you “there,” with photo ops in the Winner’s Circle and a soundtrack that adds detail and ambiance to the experience.

Call the Race: And you’re off … with the opportunity to call some of the sport’s most famous events just like a professional track announcer. With an introduction by legendary New York Racing Association racecaller Tom Durkin, the exhibit gives you a chance to study the race’s video before creating a digitally record race call to take home.

At the Races with Saul Steinberg: Opened last month, the exhibition showcases the racetrack work of the late artist, famed for his quirky pen-and-ink drawings featured for more than a half-century in The New Yorker. Steinberg visited Saratoga Springs in 1952 on commission from Harper’s to provide drawings for an article about the city, which is thought to have prompted his interest in Thoroughbred racing.

“We are excited to exhibit the artwork of Saul Steinberg in a different light and bring together those with an appreciation of art as well as Thoroughbred racing,” said museum curator Jessica Cloer.

Still, other new projects blend the old with a twist of the present. The Hall recently announced a partnership with the U.K.’s Newmarket-based National Horseracing Museum on a social media content-sharing program focused on the international legacy of racing icon Paul Mellon. Starting in mid-April, the Hall and Newmarket will share educational content across platforms about Mellon’s significant imprint on racing in the U.S. and the U.K. There will weekly posts, 10 in all, ending on Mellon’s birthday June 11.

Mellon is the focus of another partnership as well, this one with the Virginia-based Oak Spring Garden Foundation that on Feb. 18 at Tampa Bay Downs will present a screening of the documentary film “Mill Reef: A Legacy of Heart,” which chronicles Mellon’s legendary racehorse Mill Reef. Named English and European Horse of the Year in 1971 when he won the Epsom Derby, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Eclipse Stakes, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Mill Reef was bred in Virginia by Mellon and campaigned under his stables in Europe from 1970-’72. Overall, Mill Reef won 12 of 14 starts; he was trained by Ian Balding.

More exhibits and features are just ahead. On tap this spring is an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of Triple Crown-winner Secretariat, which will travel during the Triple Crown season to all three hosting venues—Churchill Downs in Louisville, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. On the way are updates to the film, What It Takes: Journey to the Hall of Fame; and an exhibit of photos of the late NYRA photographer Bert Morgan, a 2022 inductee to the Museum of Racing’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor. And this summer during the Saratoga meet, Durkin will again lead gallery tours.

For Hendrickson, the many elements of the “reimagined” Hall of Fame are now reality. “Our goal was to be the best sports Hall of Fame in the country and we sought out the best people in the country to achieve that goal,” he recently told NYRA TV. “I think we’ve accomplished our goal of being the best … and I’m very proud of this team.”