Belmont Park Opens After 3 Dark Years, 1913

Sep 8th 2008 02:06 am |

Readers of this blog know that I have a thing for opening days. All those cliches about “new beginnings” and “fresh starts” ring true for me. Last March, I did a post about the first opening day at Belmont Park, 1905. Obviously, that was an important day in the history of the grand track in Elmont but I would argue that the re-opening of the park in 1913, after 3 years of being without racing, might be the most important opening day in the track’s history.

By 1900, New York had become the center of American racing. By the time Belmont Park opened in 1905, many of the eras great horses, trainers, jockeys, and owners had made their mark in New York. This did not stop state reformers from targeting gambling in an effort to shut down the sport at the height of its popularity.
The first axe would fall in 1908 with the passing of the Hart-Agnew Bill that banned all gambling in the state. Racing soldiered on for two years with bookmakers taking bets via loopholes left in the law. Those loopholes were closed with additional legislation in 1910 and all racing in New York came to a halt. Belmont Park just 5 years after opening went dark and owners took their horses to Kentucky, Maryland, and, in some cases, Europe and Canada.

In 1913, after three years without a single race, August Belmont made the decision to re-open his track without gambling. All of the racing community crossed its collective fingers and the great race fans of New York did not disappoint. Here is how the New York Times reported the return of racing to Belmont Park on May 31, 1913:

“Degambelized horse racing was placed on trial yesterday at Belmont Park, after three years of enforced idleness on the metropolitan tracks. Almost 30,000 spectators participated in the trial, in which they occupied the position of quasi-defendants with the officials of the Westchester Racing Association, who had covenated [promised] to insure a day of clean sport”

“Gambling of the sort inhibited by law was absent. There was one arrest for alleged bookmaking, and it was described by District Attorney Charles N. Wysong of Nassau County as an isolated case. Layers of of odds, veterans in the betting rings of many tracks, were on hand, but not to accept wagers of Tom, Dick, and Harry. In fact, they were attracted to the course more by curiosity than by the hope of plying their calling. The public made no effort to patronize them. Anyway, the racing officials saw to it that patronage was impossible.

“‘I trust this will prove that our efforts to insure clean racing are sincere,’ said August Belmont, as he stood on the clubhouse lawn at the end of the programme.

“‘The law was not violated, according to reports made to me. I have seen no violation,’ said District Attorney Wysong

“The above facts supplied the evidence on which a popular acquittal was returned after what was described as one of the most remarkable days in the history of the turf in this country. Those who viewed the occasion in other than its legal aspects said it was the greatest tribute ever paid to sport in New York.

“Spontaneity attended almost every expression of the public’s joyous reception of the thoroughbred’s rejuvenation. When the rippling notes of bugle sounded shrilly above the hum of voices from crowded grandstands, clubhouse, lawns, and paddock, and that call to the post was recognized, a roar of approval arose. It swelled into deafening volume, it was sustained at full-throated strength for half a minute, diminished slightly, and then came forth anew.

“All eyes were turned toward the path winding out of the paddocks. Moncreif, son of the swift Cesarion, appeared leading the parade for the first race. At sight of him and the other thoroughbreds, the eager multitude gave voice again, as if it had not shouted itself red in the face a few minutes before…

“…And that was the throng which watchful officials described as obeying not only the spirit but also the letter of the law. It was not denied that there was sedulously restricted betting by men within the precincts of the clubhouse and by a few others on the lawn in front of the grandstand. But the general public took no part in wagering, because there was no such thing as a professional market…

“…The records give Decoration Day of 1906 as the occasion when Belmont Park held 52,000 persons, its heyday attendance. Yesterday was the second largest meeting. The officials had not looked for such a rush of patrons…

“Word had gone forth to the erstwhile bookmakers that it was futile to attempt to resume business. They talked of their affairs frankly with those in in whom they could confide, and that talk quickly became known throughout the concourse. It was to the effect that professional laying of odds would not be tried even though the officials had not raised an insurmountable barrier. Leaders of the “Mets” – the bookmakers organization – said they knew well that public betting would mean the death of horse racing in the State, and that they had no intention of dealing the blow. What might develop in the way of quiet betting later did not concern yesterday’s activities.”

Read the incredibly detailed article in its entirety at the New York Times archive

Belmont Park
This photo has a date stamp of June 2, 1913 – the first week of racing’s return under the gambling ban. The large crowd in the photo is evidence that the opening day crowd was no fluke.

It would take New York a few years to regain its central position in the world of racing. Gambling remained illegal but it wasn’t long before bookmakers and pool room operators found ways around the law. The indivisble connection between horseracing and gambling wasn’t going to be hampered by a law or two. If the horses were going to run then players would find ways to place a wager.

The “re-opening” of Belmont Park has repercussions for race fans of today. What would have happened had New Yorkers stayed home on May 31, 1913? All of us who enjoy a day at the races owe a bit of gratitude to all the anonymous and long dead race fans who revived New York racing by simply showing up to Belmont Park on Memorial Day, 1913.

Sources, Notes, and Observations

Racing Begin After 3 Years, New York Times, May 13, 1913

Whisk Broom II won the Metropolitan Handicap on the day racing returned in 1913. He would go on to win the Suburban and Brooklyn to complete the first Handicap Triple Crown. This accomplishment ranked as number 90 in
Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments (Eclipse Press). Read more at the Unoffical Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.

Photo of Belmont Park is in the public domain. I “discovered” it for sale on e-bay. I rarely buy stuff on e-bay but it is a great place to find unique historical images. Unfortunately, most of this material ends up in private hands and disappears.

For a solid overview on the history of gambling check out Roll the Bones by University of Nevada Las Vegas professor David Schwartz.

I also consulted William Robertson’s The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America

Good Luck and Thanks for Reading!

Filed in Belmont Park,gambling,New York gambling ban

One Response to “Belmont Park Opens After 3 Dark Years, 1913”

  1. […] 1908, like all those associated with racing in New York, he was effected by the enforcement of the Hart-Agnew Law that banned bookmakers from tracks. In fact, “Pack” McKenna was involved in one of the […]