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In 1961, few stakes exceeded $100,000
As the year 2011 dawns, Thoroughbred racing finds itself facing mounting problems – empty grandstands, waning handle, a rapidly declining horse population, and tracks unsubsidized by other forms of gambling reducing their racing dates.
But, 100 years ago, things were much worse. In 1911, there was no racing in New York for the first time in as long as anyone could remember as the Empire State finally joined nearly every other state in outlawing betting on horses.
Not so 50 years ago. In 1961, the sport was still intoxicated with the success that had come following the end of World War II, when returning soldiers packed grandstands, and racing publications proudly published annual figures showing horse racing as the most attended sporting event in America – ahead of Major League Baseball and professional and college football.
At tracks from coast to coast, the longest lines early each racing day often were at the windows selling reserved seating for that afternoon.
And newspaper and magazine advertisements for popular new televisions frequently displayed monitors with horse racing on the screen.
Test your knowledge of the sport of racing 50 years ago.
1. At a time when even obscure racetracks are now offering stakes with purses of $1 million, it may seem hard to believe that the gold standard in 1961 remained, in most cases, $100,000 added.
And such notable figures as Daily Racing Form editor and publisher J. Samuel Perlman argued that purses of more than $100,000 were “disturbing” in that they hurt racing’s image, reduced monies for middle-class horses, and only encouraged state lawmakers to seek higher taxes on handle.
Name the five richest stakes races run in America in 1961.
2. In the past 50 years, the biggest hit taken by the majority of racetracks across America has been in average daily attendance. Stands that were once packed from the clubhouse to the top of the stretch now often sit nearly empty.
Today’s top major racetracks in average daily ontrack attendance – Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Oaklawn – did not even appear in the top 10 in 1961.
Throughout the 1960s, these two tracks battled each other for the honor of biggest daily crowds – with numbers that are staggering by today’s standards. Name the two tracks.
3. The season of 1961 may have been the best for five-time Horse of the Year Kelso. He became only the third horse in history to win New York’s Handicap Triple – the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn – in the same season.
But the biggest crowd pleaser of the year was likely “the people’s horse,” Carry Back, a rags-to-riches champion who was 18 lengths back turning for home in the Kentucky Derby, yet managed to get up to win.
Carry Back then captured the Preakness, but failed in the Belmont Stakes. The winner of the New York classic paid a then-record $132.10 to win, but that price was way out of line based on the horse’s record. Name him.
4. On Oct. 3 and 4, 1961, this 24-year-old jockey, who would go on to be riding champion of the year, equaled a then-world record of being aboard the winners of eight consecutive races at one racetrack.
After riding the winners (all favorites) of the final three races on Tuesday at Atlantic City Race Course, this jockey came back the next day to ride the winners of the first five races. Strangely, not one of the five was the favorite.
In the sixth race, when his mount was finally favored, his streak ended. Name the rider.
5. In his final start of 1961, the immortal Kelso contested his first of four straight editions of the Washington D.C. International at Laurel, then the nation’s premier grass race each season. It was the first of only eight turf starts he would make in his 63-race career. Kelso ran second in his first three attempts at Laurel’s important race before finally winning in 1964.
In 1961, Kelso lost the International to this California-bred colt who went on to be voted champion grass horse. Name him.
History Challenge answers
1. The richest Thoroughbred race of 1961 was run at a track that no longer exists.
Garden State Park’s Garden State Stakes for 2-year-olds grossed $301,365 and was the richest purse in the world to that time. The winner, eventual 2-year-old champion Crimson Satan, took home $180,819.
The second richest race was also run at a track no longer in existence. The Washington Park Futurity grossed $213,750, with the winner Ridan collecting $128,250.
Third was Arlington Park’s Futurity, which grossed $211,750 and was also won by Ridan, earning $127,050 for his effort.
Belmont’s Champagne Stakes ($206,800) was the fourth richest and was won by the California shipper Donut King, who collected $146,800.
Fifth was the $150,000 added Preakness Stakes, richest of the Triple Crown races, which grossed $178,700, rewarding Carry Back with $126,200.
2. Hollywood Park battled Aqueduct throughout the 1960s for the honor of hosting the biggest ontrack crowds.
Hollywood was the leader in 1961 with an unbelievable average of 31,662 people in the stands each day of its 55-day spring-summer meeting.
Aqueduct’s three meetings of 138 days averaged 29,024 each day.
Several years later, both tracks would bump those figures to more than 34,000 a day. In recent years, Aqueduct and Hollywood have recorded daily ontrack averages in the 3,500 and 7,000 range, respectively.
By contrast, Saratoga averaged 21,957 this past season – compared with a daily average in 1961 of 13,669.
Del Mar has also made a major leap, averaging 10,686 a day in 1961, and 17,906 a day at its meeting this past summer.
Keeneland’s two meetings of 33 days in the spring and fall have shown the biggest increase – 6,841 fans daily in 1961 to more than 13,000 a day in 2010.
3. Sherluck, named for his owner Jacob Sher, easily won the 1961 Belmont Stakes at odds of 65-1 – a ridiculous overlay.
Just one month earlier (there were only two weeks separating each of the Triple Crown races that year), Sherluck, at odds of 5-1, had finished only six lengths behind Carry Back in the Kentucky Derby.
Ten days before the Derby, Sherluck crushed a good field by six lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes and earlier in the season had finished only a half-length behind Carry Back in Hialeah’s Everglades Stakes.
Later in 1961, Sherluck captured the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Aqueduct, again defeating Carry Back, and the Roamer Handicap.
At year’s end, the Blood-Horse Handicap of 3-year-olds rated Sherluck at 124 pounds, second only to Carry Back (126).
4. John Sellers, raised in rural Oklahoma, rode his first winner at age 18 in 1955 at Sunshine Park (now Tampa Bay Downs), but after his apprentice year, he faded into near obscurity.
Married and more mature by the end of the decade, he began studying the riding styles of the best riders and showing up at the track early every morning to talk to trainers and exercise their horses.
By 1961, he was riding so many winners that he made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. He was the regular pilot that year for Derby-Preakness winner Carry Back, and four years later won the Belmont Stakes with Hail to All.
Sellers spent much of his post-riding career as a bloodstock agent. In 2007, he was enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame. He died in 2010 at age 72.
5. While T. V. Lark won the 1961 Washington D.C. International and was voted grass champion, the Cal-bred ran most of his 72 lifetime races on the dirt. (There was still limited turf racing in America in the early 1960s.)
In fact, Kelso’s only loss as a 3-year-old the prior season came at the hands of T. V. Lark in the rich Arlington Classic on the dirt.
Earlier in his career, T. V. Lark had also won the Arlington Futurity, American Derby, Washington Park Handicap, and United Nations Handicap, among others. He went on to become a successful stallion.