11/11/2010 3:35PM

The golden era of Brooklyn racing

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Courtesy of Ron Micetic

There are no obvious traces left of Brooklyn’s grand horse racing past. Not even a plaque where any of its three storied racetracks once stood, reminding unsuspecting passersby of the famed circuit that prospered there for three decades and laid the foundation for the modern game. The still-mourned Ebbets Field has a small plaque marking its former site, but before Brooklyn was a baseball town it had been synonymous with horse racing. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed around the turn of the 20th century that “the sport for which Brooklyn is most famed is horse racing.”

There are no mourners left for seaside Brighton Beach, Gravesend, and the grandest of them all, Sheepshead Bay, known in its time as America’s Ascot. Together they made Brooklyn the racing capital of America. Like other racetracks in New York they closed by the end of 1910, casualties of a prohibition on gambling in the state. That ban was lifted in 1913, but by then, the power center of New York racing had moved eastward into the more open spaces of Queens and Long Island. The Brooklyn trio never reopened, supplanted by the newer courses of Aqueduct, Jamaica, and magnificent Belmont.

Aqueduct is the only track left within city limits. It opened last Friday for its six-month slog through almost three seasons. It will soon become more like a casino with the addition of thousands of slot machines.

As strange as it sounds, it was easier to be a racing fan in New York City a century ago than today. The subway runs to Aqueduct, but no direct line runs to Belmont after the Long Island Railroad eliminated daily service. A yellow school bus now picks up racegoers once in the morning at a nearby station.

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By the early 1880’s, one could reach the beachfront of Coney Island, home to the Brighton Beach course and within a mile of Sheepshead Bay, by any of nine steam railroads and one horse-car line. By 1886, the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, today’s F subway line, deposited racegoers at the Gravesend entrance.

Closer inspection of Brooklyn’s history reveals a fixed legacy – for racing and New York. The Brooklyn tracks started everyday racing from spring to fall, established great fixtures such as the Suburban and Brooklyn, moved the classics from four miles to 1 1/4 miles, and gave away purses that made racing broadly profitable. Neighborhoods rose around the tracks, and the most extensive railway system in the country developed as a way to carry racegoers to these ever-popular locations.

Horse racing went all the way back to the 1660’s in New York, but a century of anti-Anglo tradition swept it away until the sport returned in 1819. Legislation against racing in New York was modified and a track opened in Bath, on Long Island, prefiguring the location of the Brooklyn tracks. (Brooklyn is on the westernmost end of Long Island.) That track gave way to the famous Union Course in 1821 at a location closer to the City of Brooklyn. The Union Course survived almost a half-century.

The final years of the Civil War ushered in the early stages of modern racing. Saratoga opened for three days in 1863 and the same in 1864. Its success encouraged wealthy New Yorkers to call for a track closer to home. Financier Leonard W. Jerome started the American Jockey Club in 1865 and the next year paid for the construction of a racetrack in the annexed Westchester district in the New York City suburbs (what is now the Bronx).

READ MORE: Map of the three Brooklyn racetracks and facts about their meets (PDF)

Amid fine grass lands and wealthy estates, Jerome Park was the grandfather of racetracks, the most refined home for high society at the end of the 1860’s. It opened with great excitement on Sept. 25, 1866, in front of Ulysses S. Grant and 8,000 others. That day Jerome hoisted his young daughter Jennie – one day the mother of Winston Churchill – onto the back of the Inauguration Stakes winner. The American Jockey Club controlled Jerome Park and deeply influenced the future of American racing.

At the other end of New York, city residents turned their attentions to the long sandy beach of Coney Island. By 1868, it became the first of the resort communities, followed by West Brighton and Manhattan Beach. William A. Engeman, an entrepreneur who made his fortune during the Civil War, bought several hundred acres of oceanfront property for $20,000 and named the area Brighton Beach after the famous English beach town. The western end of Coney Island had a seedy reputation, but Engeman saw opportunity on the eastern end to attract higher classes.

Engeman’s projects earned him the moniker of the “Pioneer of Coney Island.” In 1869, he built a small wooden pier to receive steamboats, in 1871 the Ocean Hotel, and in 1878 a two-story bathing pavilion and pier. The first railroad arrived in 1864, followed by another in 1878, and one more in 1887. The pent-up communities of Brooklyn and New York soon discovered the charms of seaside life.

“In the presence of the ocean, the hearts of mankind become ecstatic, and their minds become expanded,” wrote the Daily Eagle on July 14, 1878. “Men, women and children breathe a stronger, purer air than at their homes in the city, and withal become possessed of new and brighter ideas.”

In 1879, Engeman had his brightest idea yet: the Brighton Beach Fair Grounds. Unlike the members of the American Jockey Club, Engeman was a businessman alone, not a turfman. (To be sporting, he purchased 40 horses before the meet opened.) But horse racing was a natural draw for the diverse Coney Island crowds.

Over 500 men worked day and night for a little over a month to complete the track at a cost of $80,000, according to the Daily Eagle. It was situated between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue. The course was a mile long with a 2 1/2-mile steeplechase course inside. Two grandstands – the larger one made of Georgia pine and painted similarly to the nearby Hotel Brighton – could hold 13,000 spectators. There was standing room for 30,000 more.

“From the grand stands may be seen a superb view of the ocean and an inland picture of which the eye would never tire,” observed the Daily Eagle before it opened.

Brighton Beach opened June 28, 1879. Admission was 50 cents for the larger stand, a quarter for the small one. The second day of July 4 drew a crowd of more than 10,000 people to watch four races, and racing resumed on the 5th and 14th. None of the great stables entered, but the success of those four days led to a second meeting of six days beginning on July 15 and ending July 28.

This success continued into August, at which point Brighton was onto a fifth meeting, and to attract better horses it offered the Brighton Cup, which Bramble won. The afternoon seashore crowds were turned into new racegoers. A sixth meeting, Sept. 8-17, concluded 35 days of racing. An experiment had turned into a fixture.

The year of 1879 was the genesis of Brooklyn racing. As Engeman laid down his track, Leonard Jerome and younger turfmen of the American Jockey Club cast about for a new home on Coney Island. The quality at Jerome Park was beginning to turn, and there was a vacant time in the calendar that could be utilized.

The Coney Island Jockey Club was born in June 1879, with 24 original directors, some of the most powerful men in New York, such as August Belmont Jr., James R. Keene, J.G.K. Lawrence, A. Wright Sanford, William R. Travers, and William K. Vanderbilt.

The club hastily held a meeting of three days at the former trotting track at the Prospect Driving Park. These were the same grounds that would become Gravesend racecourse. It was a success, and an autumn meeting was held in September. That winter, Jerome announced the selection of a site for the club’s new course, some 112 acres of dense wood on Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, about three-quarters of a mile inland from prosperous Manhattan Beach.

Sheepshead Bay had no peer. Like the American Jockey Club, the new club’s motto was sport for sport’s sake. From its opening on June 19, 1880, when Spinaway won the Foam Stakes, it became a destination for the finest turfmen and their horses, high society, celebrities, and plungers, as large bettors were known then. Among the stakes at the inaugural meeting were the Tidal, Foam, Coney Island Handicap, Surf, Mermaid, and Coney Island Derby.

The track cost $135,000 to complete and had seats for 5,000 and stands to hold 40,000, plus a steeplechase and training track in the inner field, saddling paddock, judges’ and timers’ stand, and large betting ring shaded by native trees. A station was erected to serve two railroads. The clubhouse dining room catered to the wealthy.

As legendary journalist Walter S. Vosburgh wrote, “A lunch was provided free in the clubhouse to members and others on the principle that men were in better humor when well fed than if compelled to patronize the doubtful food of the public restaurant or go hungry.”

Sheepshead Bay established a series of firsts: a remodeled course of nine furlongs in 1884, a turf course in 1886. It inaugurated the Suburban in 1884, which became the greatest fixture of that era. In 1886, the Futurity was opened to be run in 1888. Entrants were nominated before they were born by way of their dams being named. It rivaled the Suburban in renown.
At the outset of the new course there was some confusion. Vosburgh tells the story of the late Frank Hall, of Maryland, who trained his 1884 Suburban candidate War Eagle over it. “When the horse ran it in 1.55, Mr. Hall, forgetting it was no longer a mile, was unable to believe his eyes and concluded, ‘Something’s wrong with my watch,’ until Mr. A.J. Joyner reminded him that the horse had covered nine furlongs.”

Long before the surf met the turf at Del Mar, there was Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. They held races, rarely more than five, in the summertime afternoon.

“On summer Saturdays the clerks and merchants and the professional men who are kept in town, take an early luncheon in the city, and catch the Bay Ridge boat for the races at Sheepshead Bay, across the creek from the island,” wrote a race fan in Scribner’s Magazine in 1896. After the races, the crowd burst into the Coney Island night and its restaurants, bars, vaudeville houses, and amusements.

People still wanted more racing. Much of Brooklyn was still farmland, but those railroads and new boulevards, like the Olmsted and Vaux-designed Ocean Parkway, began to cut through and open up the area on its way to Coney Island.

In the winter of 1885-1886, brothers and celebrated owners Phil and Mike Dwyer organized the Brooklyn Jockey Club and purchased the old Gravesend trotting grounds where the Coney Island club had passed through. Within two miles of Coney Island, they rebuilt the old track to a mile and erected new buildings, including a grandstand for 8,000 people. Though not elaborate, the course was sound.

Before their turf career the Dwyers ran a butcher shop at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. “Their butcher carts were drawn about the streets by flyers of no mean ability,” the Daily Eagle once remarked. They purchased their first racehorse in 1874, a Belmont cast-off named Rhadamanthus. By 1881, they won the Kentucky Derby, with Hindoo. They campaigned many champions, Miss Woodford and Hanover among them. Their charges were pushed through grueling campaigns, like Kingston, who won a record 89 out of 138 races.

The brothers could not have been more different. Phil was modest with his bets, conservative with their stable. He once observed, “Horse racing and everything about it is a lottery, especially yearlings.”

Mike was a high-stakes bettor whose daring and often reckless manner astonished his brother. About one race in which Mike landed $40,000 cash in the Dwyers’ pockets, he said with a laugh: “Phil didn’t know how much I had on. You know Phil would have to be chloroformed to get him to bet more than $500.”

Their track opened Aug. 26, 1886. Three railroads sent trains there every 15 minutes. The Brooklyn and Coney Island clubs agreed to alternate days: Monday, Wednesday, Friday for Gravesend; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for Sheepshead Bay. In the fall, Engeman begrudgingly went along, too. Everyday racing was born.

The Dwyers inaugurated the Brooklyn Handicap in 1887. More than 15,000 people were there, and most of them went home disappointed that day. Phil Dwyer had issued orders prohibiting betting of any kind. Bookmakers, who had fled Jerome Park the previous year, couldn’t take action. “The disgusted 14,000 at last in despair began to bet with each other,” the Daily Eagle reported.

It was the height of the Gilded Age and in racing America had its foremost sport. With more tracks in New York there was more racing. Horses were asked to run more; gone was four-mile heat racing, replaced by exciting “dashes” of 1 1/4 miles.

The 1890’s were some of Brooklyn’s greatest years, perhaps none more so than 1890, which witnessed the greatest race of the era, between Salvator and Tenny at Sheepshead Bay.

The best of their generation, Salvator and Tenny, then 4, met before a record crowd in the Suburban on June 17, 1890. Salvator (127 pounds) beat Cassius (107), with Tenny (126) third. Tenny’s unhappy connections proposed a $15,000 winner-take-all match race the following week at the same distance and equal weights; the Coney Island Jockey Club pitched in another $5,000. On June 25, a crowd of more than 15,000 people arrived at Sheepshead Bay.

Two of the best jockeys of the era were involved – Snapper Garrison on Tenny, Isaac Murphy on Salvator. Bookmakers installed J.B. Haggin’s Salvator as the 3-5 favorite. They ran side by side for the first three furlongs, and then Murphy sent Salvator to the front into the first turn. He outsprinted Tenny down the backstretch and led by three lengths at the head of the stretch. But the dead-game Tenny came on like a demon, overhauling Salvator with every stride.

“Men and women alike seemed crazy, and hugged one another, shouted themselves hoarse, threw hats, umbrellas, parasols, and handkerchiefs into the air, and altogether acted as if they had lost possession of their senses,” the Times reported.

With a few strokes from Murphy’s spurs and lashes from his whip, Salvator lasted by a head in the shadow of the string. Both jockeys thought they had won and chatted as they pulled up, according to Vosburgh.

“I think I beat you,” said Garrison.

“No, I guess my horse won,” replied Murphy.

Salvator’s number was put up. The crowd cheered for five full minutes, much of it for the brave Tenny, and broke out again when the final time was hung: 2:05. It was a new American record for 1 1/4 miles.

Salvator met Tenny once more, in Monmouth Park’s Champion Stakes, and won by four lengths. In his final start, a race against time over Monmouth’s straight course, he shattered the American and world record for a mile, going 1:35 2/5.

The match race did not fade from memory. In staging it, the Times wrote, “The Coney Island Jockey Club covered itself with glory.”

The glory of the three Brooklyn tracks set the course for a full calendar of racing. Jerome Park closed in 1890, but other tracks followed to meet the great demand: Morris Park (1889), in Westchester; and other Long Island courses, Aqueduct (1894), Jamaica (1901), and Belmont (1905). In 1905, after Morris Park closed, the state had seven racetracks, five within what are now city limits, and 13 race meets. (By law the calendar began April 15 and ended November 15.)

By 1900, the track was the biggest employer in Brooklyn. Brighton Beach was known for its raffish air, Sheepshead Bay for high society, and Gravesend was somewhere in the middle. Gravesend ran in the spring and fall, Sheepshead Bay in the summer, and Brighton Beach in the summer and fall. Neighborhoods surrounding the tracks developed to cater to the all-year calendar.

On the edge of Gravesend, Avenue U became Trainers’ Row. The moneyed class, like the Dwyers and jockeys Jimmy McLaughlin and Snapper Garrison, lived in Eighth Avenue brownstones on Sportsman’s Row (in what is now Park Slope, a neighborhood in the Western part of Brooklyn).

Advertisements for hotels, plus travel recommendations for the many railroads, were everywhere. Professional gamblers stayed at Richard Ravenhall’s hotel, bookmakers at the Riccadore Hotel. Actresses such as Lillian Russell, criminals like Pittsburgh Phil Strauss, and plungers such as Diamond Jim Brady dined in Sheepshead Bay’s Gold Room and stayed at the gaudy Manhattan Beach and Oriental hotels.

Year after year, Sheepshead Bay led the way in purses and advancing the style of racing. In 1905, for example, Sheepshead Bay had 30 days with a total purse distribution of $574,479; Gravesend had 30 days and gave away $463,175; Brighton Beach raced 28 days with purses of $354,103. The new Belmont Park gave away $384,393 in 30 days.

So many horses fashioned their greatness in Brooklyn, like Ben Brush, Broomstick, Colin, Hamburg, Hanover, Fair Play, Imp, Maskette, Roseben, and Sysonby. There was the famous 1895 match race at Gravesend between Domino and Henry of Navarre that ended in a dead heat. Colin finished his undefeated career in Sheepshead Bay’s Tidal Handicap. The best weight-carriers went from the Brooklyn to the Brighton to the Suburban. Gravesend even hosted the Preakness for 15 years, from 1894 to 1908. The Futurity was often the country’s richest race, bringing a permanent emphasis on young horses and speed.

The crowds grew significantly: 35,000 people watched Belmont’s Beldame win the 1905 Suburban, and more than 40,000 saw Billy Lakeland’s Electioneer win the 1906 Futurity and James R. Keene’s Peter Pan win the 1907 Brighton Handicap.

And then the plug was pulled. The Gilded Age had passed into the Progressive era, and moralizing against gambling, drinking, and other vices had become routine. Newspapers publicized arrests of bookmakers. The Ives Law of 1887 restricted betting to the track, but a network of poolrooms, illegal but in plain sight, sprouted around the city to take bets. Via Western Union, trackside bookmakers wired news to poolrooms.

Gov. Charles Evan Hughes personally went after horse racing. In June 1908, he signed the Hart-Agnew Law, which banned betting at the track. The tracks continued on the assumption that oral betting among fans was allowed. Confined to gate receipts, the jockey clubs hemorrhaged money.
Brighton Beach closed in 1908. Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend continued for two more years. On June 15, 1910, Hughes signed additional bills that closed loopholes in the Hart-Agnew legislation.

In a sad ending, the Coney Island Jockey Club gave its last three days to Saratoga, including the Futurity. Samuel C. Hildreth’s Novelty won the classic on Aug. 31, the final day before every racetrack in the state closed.

Racing returned in 1913 with parimutuel wagering, but the Brooklyn tracks never reopened. Their races went elsewhere: Belmont acquired the Sheepshead Bay classics, Aqueduct got Gravesend’s. (Phil Dwyer and others in the Brooklyn Jockey Club had invested in Aqueduct years earlier.)

Brighton Beach briefly tried auto and bicycle racing, and Sheepshead Bay tried auto racing, concerts, and flight challenges. Gravesend kept its stables open for some time. By the end of the first World War, the three tracks were gone, and developers acquired the property. There was a real estate crisis in Brooklyn. The growth in population and demand for housing made the land incredibly valuable.

The wealthy neighborhood of Gravesend was subdivided, and Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay got frame houses. The trains that used to move racegoers and horses became part of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit subway system. Where the tracks once stood are now all-year-round home communities. The traces of Brooklyn’s racing past are simply hidden in plain sight. 

Racing programs courtesy of Ron Micetic.