The Delaware Handicap and the Distaff Big Three

Jul 10th 2008 12:46 am |

On Sunday, Delaware Park hosts the 71st running of the Delaware Handicap. The origins of the “Del Cap” as a significant race for fillies and mares can be traced to the 1950s when the popularity of the sport grew and tracks on the east coast vied for the attention of gamblers and fans. In 1956, the New York Times explained Delaware Park’s emergence as a major venue for fillies and mares: “..with the advent of big-time racing in New Jersey, Delaware began to feel the effects of lost patronage. It needed something unique to attract the better equine performers.” They created something unique in 1953 by increasing the purse of their premier race (then called the New Castle Handicap) to $100,000 making it the richest race in the world for fillies and mares.

Images: (Above) Horses being eased after the Delaware Handicap, 1957. (Right) The filly Grecian Queen, winner of the 1953 Delaware Handicap. (Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 16-270 and 1-297 )

The New Castle Handicap had been run at Delaware Park since it opened in 1937. By 1950, the New Castle’s purse had been on par with other prestigious races for fillies and mares like the Beldame and the Coaching Club Oaks in New York and the Santa Margarita in California. In 1953, by doubling the purse, the New Castle Handicap became one of the richest races in the country (male or female).

The name of the race changed in 1955 when track management started a race series called the Distaff Big Three that comprised the Delaware Oaks, the New Castle Stakes (a new race), and the (renamed) Delaware Handicap. The races were run on successive Saturdays with the Delaware Handicap, the last leg in the series, coming on the final day of the race season. Entries generated added purse money if they ran in multiple races in the series. According to the New York Times, the idea for the Distaff Big Three came from the track’s Director of Advertising and Promotion, Helen Stairwalt.

In 1956, Sports Illustrated reported:

“Where,does the owner with a good filly or mare take her for the best tests and the proper recognition? In recent years Delaware Park has become the best place to go, and it has done more than any track in the country to build up distaff racing. Delaware Park’s General Manager Bryan Field says, ‘There was double motivation behind our filly and mare program. Our track was being hurt by the overlapping racing dates of tracks in neighboring states, and about the only way we could figure to get around—or overcome—this serious intrusion was to offer horsemen something really smashing and big. Secondly, most of Delaware Park’s directors are connected with the breeding end of racing. So, out of all this collective thought and study, came a perfect solution: we would put on a series of three filly and mare races for a total value of a quarter of a million dollars, and the best would be sure to show up.’” (Read the full article here)

Image: Endine(2x), the first-two time winner of the Delaware Handicap, finishes strong in winning her second straight Del Cap in 1959. She beat her entry-mate Tempted(2) the 1959 Handicap Mare of the Year. Endine lost the New Castle Stakes the previous week by 27 lengths.
(Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 1-537)

By 1963, the American Racing Manual described the series as “the opulent ‘quarter-million-dollar Distaff Big Three.” However, like other race series’ not the Triple Crown for colts, the Big Three came to a quiet end after the 1963 race season. No mention can be found of the “Distaff Big Three” in the New York Times and the American Racing Manual after 1963. (I was unable to find any official or unofficial reason why the series disappeared.)

Winner’s of Delaware Park’s Distaff Big Three races, 1955 to 1963

While the “Big Three” concept failed, the Delaware Handicap continued to maintain its significance on the racing calendar. When Delaware Park closed in 1982 Steven Crist, reporting on the demise of the “idyllic country track”, called the Delaware Handicap a “major race in turf history.” The Delaware Handicap was run at Saratoga in 1983 to 1985 but returned to its home in 1986 when Delaware Park reopened. In 2005, in the great tradition of high stakes racing for fillies and mares at Delaware Park, track management boosted its purse to one million dollars.

Image: Obeah (left) wins her second Delaware Handicap in 1970. Obeah was the dam of Go for Wand. She, like her champion daughter, was owned by Christiana Stable. (Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 1-23435)

NOTES AND SOURCES

The images for this article came from the Delaware Historical Society. They own a wonderful photograph collection from Delaware Park that covers a period from approximately 1947 to 1974. Mainly comprised of racing shots the collection also contains photos of jockeys, trainers, and staff in addition to great images of the facilities in Stanton. I spent a few hours going through the collection on Monday and hope to return soon. I want to thank Ellen Rendle, the Society’s Curator of Photographs and Maps, for allowing me to use a few of the many outstanding images in the collection.

A New Queen: Berlo“, Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1960
Fillies First“, Sports Illustrated, July 9, 1956
“$100,000 Race Set for Fillies, Mares”, New York Times, January 27, 1953
“Delaware’s Distaff Big Three is a Woman’s Idea”, New York Times, May 23, 1956
“Horse Racing: An Industry Confronting Transition”, New York Times, December 21, 1982
American Racing Manual, Daily Racing Form, 1957, 1964, 1965
Delaware Park Fingertip Facts and Figures, 1958 [Press Guide]

Brief History of Delaware Park from their website

Here is an interesting article on some recent confusion regarding the New York race series for fillies

Thanks for reading!

Filed in Delaware Handicap,Delaware Park,Distaff Big Three,Endine,Fillies and mares, races for,Obeah



7 Responses to “The Delaware Handicap and the Distaff Big Three”

  1. cainhoy says:

    Thank you, again! Being immensely partial to the storied races of my native Paumanok, I knew little of this race, so I very much appreciate this chapter. I so love the photo of the aftermath of the ’57 running that I am using it for my desktop background. Look at those ominous clouds. So dramatic and evocative of a time in horse racing that to me seems like it was akin to “The Golden Age of Pericles”. What a time it must have been… I hope that this will be what Heaven will be like for all of us and our beloved horses.

  2. cainhoy says:

    Thank you, again! Being immensely partial to the storied races of my native Paumanok, I knew little of this race, so I very much appreciate this chapter. I so love the photo of the aftermath of the ’57 running that I am using it for my desktop background. Look at those ominous clouds. So dramatic and evocative of a time in horse racing that to me seems like it was akin to “The Golden Age of Pericles”. What a time it must have been… I hope that this will be what Heaven will be like for all of us and our beloved horses.

  3. Kevin says:

    And thank you…I really appreciate your feedback and thoughtful comments.

  4. The Thoroughbred Brief says:

    I hope you don’t mind if I add a link to your blog. I got a little starry eyed when I learned that it was devoted entirely to horse racing history, with primary sources and everything. Makes a history geek like me smile.

  5. Excellent post, you’ve got some really great information packed in here. I wish I had seen this before I wrote my recent Delaware Handicap story.

  6. Tom Siolek,Sr. says:

    So good to see the history of Delaware Park. Although only 15 years ago, I remember the old school parimutuel windows out of a 1930- 1940′s movie set. Also the time before the racino. Del park is a gem and thanks for stirring up her old but forward looking bones!

    Thundering Emilia is my pick for this Saturday’s DelCap!

  7. [...] to the racing history blog Colin’s Ghost, this wasn’t always the case. Blogger Kevin Martin cites a 1956 Sports Illustrated report—imagine, Sports Illustrated coverage [...]

Leave a Reply