12/20/2007 12:00AM

History challenge

EmailAs the year 1908 began, racing was struggling for its survival - not because it had lost its popularity with the public, but because zealous legislators were outlawing gambling in state after state. The number of racetracks in America was down more than 90 percent from just a decade earlier.

One hundred years later, at the dawn of 2008, racing in America also finds itself at a crossroads. Grandstands - frequently filled to capacity 40 years ago - sit largely empty at all but a handful of venues.

Racing in New York - for three centuries the foundation of the sport in this country - is battling for its future with politicians. In Maryland, the home of the nation's oldest racing association, the sport is nearly moribund, with talk of the fabled Preakness Stakes moving to another state. At the same time, the country's biggest racetrack operator, Magna Entertainment, continues to hemorrhage red ink.

Unlike 1908, racing today has lost popularity with the general public, as well as with sportswriters and sportscasters. Without off-track betting and on-site casino gambling, the number of racetracks operating today arguably would be down more than 90 percent.

Test your knowledge of the sport of racing 100 years ago.

1. As 1908 unfolded, scores of America's best horses and top stallions were being placed on ships bound for England, France, Germany, and other locales overseas.

Leading the charge was James R. Keene, who in 1907 established a world record for single-season earnings by a stable - more than $400,000.

Keene won the 1908 Belmont Stakes with a horse he frequently described as the greatest he ever owned, but that champion, too, would later in the year be shipped to England. Name the horse.

2. In August 1908, this former harness track in New York opened for the second year as a Thoroughbred course, but this time it was a full-fledged member of the Metropolitan Racing Association.

When it opened in 1907, it did so as an outlaw track, not sanctioned by The Jockey Club. But it was so successful during its first season that the powerful ruling body in New York City could not stand in its way the following year. Name the track.

3. On June 11, 1908, New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, who would later gain fame as a presidential nominee and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, signed into law the Agnew-Hart anti-racetrack gambling bill.

The legislation was the culmination of years of battling by conservative politicians and religious zealots to "clean up" the Empire State.

Despite the new law, racetracks continued to limp along in New York for another two years. What kept them going and what finally happened to shut them down?

4. Threatened by a sheriff who believed gambling was illegal, Churchill Downs canceled its fall meeting in 1907. In January 1908, the commonwealth of Kentucky formally outlawed bookmaking at racetracks.

Col. Matt Winn, the head of Churchill Downs, found a loophole in an old state law that said the "Paris-mutuel" (later referred to as parimutuel) form of wagering was legal. Winn found old machines in storage and racing continued unabated in the Bluegrass State.

When first tested in Kentucky and New York in the 1870s, betting by the Paris-mutuel machines was a flop. What was the public reaction to the reintroduction in 1908?

5. As 1908 came to a close, major Thoroughbred racing in the United States was being conducted only in four states - Kentucky, New York, Maryland, and California.

In May 1908, Congress passed the Sims Act, which effectively closed the District of Columbia's popular Bennings course.

In June, two more states fell victim to anti-gambling fever. In one, it was the Locke Bill; in the other, the Amis Law. Name these two states.

Answers

1. Renowned racing official and historian Walter Vosburgh in 1908 called the exodus of many of this country's best horses and stallions overseas an "American invasion."

James R. Keene, perennial leading owner, kept undefeated Colin in the states through the summer. In June, Colin held off a furious late charge by Fair Play to win a controversial Belmont Stakes, run in a driving rain.

Three weeks later, Colin ran what turned out to be his final race, the Tidal Stakes at Sheepshead Bay. He won his 15th race in as many starts.

Colin was shipped to England, but suffered a career-ending injury before ever starting. He then began his stud career in England before returning to America.

Colin was only mildly successful at stud, but his rival, Fair Play, was a dynamo as a stallion, producing, among other top stakes winners, Man o' War.

2. Empire City Race Course in Yonkers, N.Y., was located 12 miles from Central Park. It opened in 1900 as a course for trotters, but struggled financially in the years that followed.

James Butler, a millionaire grocery store chain owner, bought the course in 1907, and with Kentucky Col. Matt Winn as manager, turned it into an instant success as a Thoroughbred course.

The Empire City Handicap and Derby soon became major fixtures on the racing calendar. All racing was shut down in New York in 1910, but Empire City was one of five courses to return later, along with Aqueduct, Belmont, Jamaica, and Saratoga.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Empire City was sold and reverted to harness racing. It was rebuilt and renamed Yonkers Raceway. Today, its purses are bolstered by on-site gaming machines.

3. Gambling on horses in New York from 1895 to 1908 continued under convoluted legislation known as the Percy-Gray Law, which said that betting between individuals was permissible.

The Agnew-Hart Law in 1908 outlawed this form of betting. But in early August that year, a New York Supreme Court justice ruled that the law applied only to written, formal bets, and not to bets placed orally.

The political battle continued for two more years. Finally, in May 1910, two stronger racing laws were enacted. At the completion of the Saratoga meeting that August, all racing in New York shut down.

Between 1895 and 1908, the taxes collected by the state from racing totaled $1.7 million. By 1913, the state began to miss this income and racing was quietly allowed to return, though betting would technically remain illegal in the Empire State until the 1930s.

4. The early parimutuel machines were cumbersome and required two people to operate, but with bookmakers no longer available in Kentucky, bettors quickly adapted.

Matt Winn thought the machines were just a way to beat the law, and that bookmakers would soon return, but he quickly discovered that the mutuels were a goldmine for the track. Wagering soared to record numbers when Winn lowered the minimum bet from $5 to $2 in 1910.

Initially, bettors did not like the idea of not knowing what odds they would get when they bet, but a system was soon devised where odds were calculated every 10 minutes and posted on a board in front of the stands. (Automatic tote machines and the tote board would not arrive in America until the early 1930s.)

Because of the slowness in posting odds, final payoffs could be quite different - a situation that once again frustrates bettors 100 years later.

5. In June 1908, the Locke Anti-Race Gambling Bill squeaked by in the Louisiana legislature and went to the governor, who signed it.

A week earlier, the Supreme Court of Arkansas had upheld the Amis Law, banning all betting on races in that state.

California followed suit the following spring, shutting down racing in the Golden State until 1933. (A non-betting meeting was conducted at Tanforan in Northern California in 1923.)