08/06/2013 9:23PM

Pillar of the Turf: August Belmont II was an American original

Library of Congress/Pach Brothers
Among August Belmont II's many lasting contributions to horse racing and breeding was his involvement in the building of Belmont Park, named after his father.

On June 27, hundreds of mourners filed into Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine to honor the late actor James Gandolfini. Nearly 89 years earlier, a similarly large crowd made that same solemn procession down the same broad aisle, in the same massive sanctuary, celebrating the life of a very different kind of man.

That distant afternoon, during a serene historical period between global wars and before the stock-market crash tipped the country into darkness, bankers and businessmen, political and military leaders, authors, actors, and athletes converged at the funeral of August Belmont II – a financier, patriot, arts patron, sportsman. Pallbearers included two past presidents of the New York Stock Exchange and a former U.S. Secretary of State.

Racing folk crowded the pews: Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Wideners, alongside stablehands, exercise boys, and future Hall of Fame horsemen named Hirsch, Hildreth, Feustel, Madden, Joyner, Rowe, and Sande. Their presence spoke volumes about this diminutive man with full drooping moustache and laser-beam eyes, who had made his final bow so unexpectedly ... but who in his allotted span had accomplished more good for horse racing than anyone before and quite possibly since. Belmont’s legacy survives today, evidenced by his installment this month as one of the first two “Pillars of the Turf” in the Racing Hall of Fame.

A banker by inheritance, Belmont was the son of a Jewish immigrant who changed his name from Schoenberg, reinvented himself as a successful capitalist, and wed American royalty, a daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry. Second-generation greatness, however, is not a given. Belmont Sr.’s offspring included daughters who died young, a wife-deserting son, and a youthful suicide. His 1853 namesake, however, was different, and upon his father’s 1890 death, it was August Jr. who assumed command of the Belmont empire – which he would manage wisely and well.

Belmont II’s biggest business coup came in 1899 following the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, when he agreed to finance a New York City tunnel transit system – after Whitneys and Vanderbilts had spurned the notion.

But ultimately, horse racing was Belmont’s greatest passion. As a younger man, he’d revelled in the successes of his father, including an 1889 Suburban victory, and enjoyed visits to the family’s Nursery Stud in Kentucky. But as long as his father lived, Belmont was an observer. In 1890, that changed.

The new master of Nursery Stud paid $37,000 for a well-bred but savage juvenile named Hastings. No one was safe near this colt, who kicked with wild abandon and lunged at anyone close enough to clamp a crushing jaw on. Though hell on hooves and a habitual morning runaway, Hastings possessed afternoon class enough to win the 1896 Belmont Stakes and, later, the procreative powers to twice top America’s sire list.

Meantime, Belmont was helping build an organization whose job it would be to oversee horse racing, which by then was widely viewed as corrupted by bookmakers. His devotion to the sport was lifelong – as 30-year chairman of The Jockey Club, head of the first New York State Racing Commission, builder of Belmont Park, and, eventually, as someone who spoke loudly and often about the desperate need to keep racing clean.

When The Jockey Club’s best efforts fell before a 1908-09 legislative typhoon that led to passage of bicoastal anti-wagering laws, racetracks closed, and numerous horsemen – even the wealthiest – gave up, sold off, shipped out. Not Belmont. Though he did hedge bets by returning his star stallion Rock Sand to Europe and maintaining some bloodstock abroad, he never stopped breeding Thoroughbreds at Nursery Stud, leading by example as bad times segued back to good.

August Belmont II bred 129 stakes winners, among them Beldame, who raced long and gloriously for her breeder but failed as a producer. Blaming this on “over-racing,” Belmont thereafter ran fillies just enough to prove their ability or lack thereof – fillies like Rock Sand’s daughter Mahubah.

In 1916, Belmont sent Mahubah to his homebred Fair Play, a brilliant, sometimes sullen, generally unpredictable piece of work, only marginally less difficult than his sire, Hastings, had been. On March 29, 1917, Mahubah birthed a chestnut colt. Eight days later, America entered World War I.

It was the perfect storm for heartbreak. Belmont, then 65, volunteered for service, received a major’s commission, and was assigned to procure Army cavalry mounts. With no time to attend to racing, he made a decision he would forever regret: to sell off his entire 1918 yearling crop, without reserve.

The July 21, 1918, New York Times served notice: “There will be an unusual opportunity for turfmen to acquire stock of the highest class when the yearlings of Nursery Stud are offered for sale during Saratoga ... The sale of these youngsters, kept for racing in the Belmont silks in ordinary years, will be one of the leading features at the Spa.”

Among those led before the auctioneer was Mahubah’s son, bought for $5,000 by a man named Samuel Riddle.

August Belmont II didn’t ask for much. He simply wanted a horse with high speed, endless stamina, and indomitable will to win under any conditions, over any distance, against any rival, with the grandstand on his back if need be, and he wanted it done faster than greased lightning. Everything Belmont had ever hoped for, dreamed of, perhaps even prayed for, was realized in one particular colt: the one he sold for $5,000. And all he could do was watch from afar as Man o’ War raced onto the landscape of legend.

It was said that August Belmont suffered a thousand private agonies over the sale of Man o’ War. It has even been suggested that grief born of that loss might have hastened his passing. But publicly, Belmont never spoke of it.

On Labor Day, Sept. 1, 1924, the financier sat in his box at Belmont Park under a fluttering Union Jack flag. His guest was young Edward, prince of Wales, the man who later abdicated his kingly throne for a woman. But on this day, they were just two men enjoying an afternoon of sport, wandering together through the paddock, appearing on the judge’s stand.

Four weeks later, Belmont, sans the prince, was at Aqueduct to see his Ladkin bring down French champion Epinard in an “international” race he’d help organize. That might have been his last racetrack outing, for the newspapers – who followed his every move – thereafter fell mum on the subject of August Belmont.

But life went on ... until it didn’t. On Dec. 9, a seemingly healthy Belmont arrived at his office, imperious and demanding as ever. By noon, he complained of pain in his right arm. By 1 p.m. he was settled in bed at his Park Avenue home, where, despite the presence of four physicians, his condition slid quickly from bad to worse to dire; blood-poisoning was suspected. At 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, August Belmont II, age 71, crossed over.

Tributes poured in.

“He stood for the very best in racing,” said A.B. Hancock.

“The Turf world has suffered its greatest loss,” lamented Admiral Cary Grayson.

Trainer Max Hirsch predicted he would “be missed by everyone who ever came near a racetrack.”

And John E. Madden, himself an industry icon, called Belmont the best breeder of Thoroughbreds America had ever seen.

As the great mahogany coffin was borne through the Cathedral of St. John on Dec. 12, 1924, draped in roses and lilies-of-the-valley, the world outside paused to reflect.

At precisely 4 p.m., New York’s subway system ground to a momentary halt to honor the man who had built it ... and across the East River, flags at Belmont Park slowly descended their staffs, stopping at half-staff in silent tribute to the man who had saved racing.

Date of birth: Feb. 18, 1853
Date of death: Dec. 10, 1924
Farm: Nursery Stud in Kentucky
Achievements: Bred 129 stakes winners; was associated with William Collins Whitney in the revitalization of Saratoga in the early 1900s; among the founding members of The Jockey Club and served as chairman from 1895 until his death in 1924; served as chairman of the New York State Racing Commission; was a founding member of the National Steeplechase Association in 1895; organized the Westchester Racing Association in 1895; opened Belmont Park in 1905; won the Belmont Stakes, named after his father, in 1902 (Masterman ), 1916 (Friar Rock), and 1917 (Hourless); established Haras de Villers breeding operation in France
Champions bred: Beldame, Chance Play, Friar Rock, Hourless, Mad Hatter, Man o’ War, Rock View
Also noteworthy: Graduated from Harvard and went into the family banking business before his involvement with racing; after his father’s death in 1890, became heavily involved with racing and took over August Belmont & Company, a New York City bank; served as chairman of the board of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and director of the National Park Bank; at age 65, served the U.S. in Spain with the Quartermaster Corps; founded thte Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1902, helping finance the construction and operation of New York City’s first underground rapid transit line; spent much of his personal fortune on the construction of the Cape Cod Canal; served as president of the American Kennel Club