Havre de Grace Racetrack opens, 1912

Sep 29th 2009 12:31 am |

I have been wanting to do a post about Havre de Grace Racetrack for quite awhile. I have done a great deal of research on the track and find it fascinating. Much of my interest comes from its former location in Maryland which is close to where I currently live. I am also perplexed (and saddened) how a prestigious track could close in 1950 just as racing was nearing its peak of popularity. The closing of Havre de Grace shows that no venue should be taken for granted.  

Image: The clubhouse and grandstand at Havre de Grace, September 29, 1931 (Link to source)

Man O’ War, War Admiral, Sir Barton, Seabiscuit, Exterminator, Sarazen, Equipoise, Discovery, Sun Beau, Crusader, and Citation are some of the legends that raced around the oval at Havre de Grace. From 1912 to 1950, a small town at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, served as a center stage for American thoroughbred racing.

Postcard image of Havre de Grace, circa 1940

What follows is the story of the track’s opening as told through the pages of the Daily Racing Form.

In April 1912, the Governor of Maryland signed a bill that cleared the way for the establishment of the track in Havre de Grace. A month later on May 9th 1912, details about its construction were published:

“The land on which the new track will be built has been acquired for $20,000 and the plans call for an expenditure of $125,000 for the construction of the track grandstand and other necessary structures.”

“The track will be located directly on the banks of the Susquehanna River in what is considered one of the most beautiful spots in all America. The grounds include 103 acres about thirty-eight miles from Baltimore and forty-eight miles from Philadelphia.”

“Both the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore Ohio Railroads run through the land that has become the property of Mr. Rhinock and his associates. Each company will build a handsome railroad station in close connection with the track. Mr. Rhinock has arranged with each company for a 50 cent round-trip car fare…Fine turnpikes connect the property with Philadelphia and Baltimore permitting automobiling and driving from each city.”

Joseph Rhinock was a former congressman from Covington, KY who was the “moving spirit” in the association that was formed to conduct racing at Havre de Grace. Work began on the track at the end of June with a plan to complete construction by August.

On August 19th, all seemed in order for opening day:

“The course was practically built in a month, the program has been framed, stakes have been closed and now special train arrangements have been completed for the handling of crowds”

Also announced on the 19th was a list of racing officials and administrators. Many came from New York, where anti-gambling legislation had completely shut down racing in 1911. Legendary handicapper Walter Vosburgh was one of the the former New York officials who moved south for the inaugural meet. 

On August 24, 1912 Havre de Grace opened for business. Here is part of the Daily Racing Form‘s reporting:

“With an attendance of five thousand people, representing four of the largest cities in the east — New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington — the new race course at Havre de Grace opened its gates this afternoon. The plant, while still incomplete, was in first class condition as to appointments, but the track was cuppy, making fast time impossible. It was a good track for horses that like soft going and the purses nearly all went to animals that are partial to this kind of a track.”

“In the crowd were many faces that have been familiar on the tracks of New York, many of the old-timers going to the races for the first time since the sport was discontinued in New York. The largest patronage came from Philadelphia, although Baltimore and Washington sent goodly contingents. It is evident from the good attendance and the enthusiasm displayed that the new course is bound to prove popular. The going will doubtless improve as the meeting progresses and the soil gets settled….”

“….Well backed horses as a rule raced well and the crowd went away well satisfied with the afternoon’s sport.”

Daily attendance peaked at well over 6,000 during the meet. Even with the death of a jockey and a legal battle to ban on-track bookmakers, the first meet at Havre de Grace was deemed a success.

From 1912 to 1950 (with the excpetions of a shut down during World War II), the Maryland track hosted two meets. The spring meet served as one of the key destinations for colts bound for the Kentucky Derby.  The fall meet attracted some of the best handicap horses in country for races like the Havre de Grace Handicap.

Racing at Havre de Grace attracted high-class horses, well-heeled owners, and the best trainers and jockeys in the country.  According to a local journalist, the track made the small Maryland town “famous”.

Considering the current success of boutique meets at Del Mar, Saratoga, and Keeneland, it’s hard not to think what might have been had the track survived.

Racetrack with the town of Havre de Grace visible to the right.
The Chesapeake Bay and stable area are visible in the foreground.
September 1927 (Link to source)

The railroad line and shed bending around the final turn towards the grandstand
September 1931 (Link to source)

When the track closed in 1950, the land was sold to the Maryland National Guard.  The old clubhouse is now used as administrative office for the Guard, seen here in 2008:

 

Here is a shot taken from the former clubhouse turn looking towards the finish line. The white building on the left is the back of the clubhouse seen above:

Graw Days, October 10
On Saturday October 10 the town of Havre de Grace hosts its second annual Graw Days to celebrate the legacy of the track.  For more information, check out the event sponsors website. I am looking forward to attending this year’s event.

SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS

“Consistent Magazine Wins,” Daily Racing Form, April 17, 1912
“Westerners Interested in New Track,” Daily Racing Form, May 9, 1912
“Opening is Auspicious,” Daily Racing Form, August 25, 1912

Article about the track’s closing from Time Magazine

View additional aerial images of Havre de Grace Racetrack

Many thanks to reader Richard Gephart who kindly sent me the postcard of Havre de Grace used above.

Thanks to those who commented and emailed about the Historic Races, Fantastic Finishes top ten. Nothing like a top ten list to get people talking. I made the premise a little more complicated then it needed to be and probably should have called it “Historic Achievements, Fantastic Finishes.” I received a handful of suggestions.  Most passed the fantastic finish test but not the significant historical achievement test. I appreciate all the feedback.  Hope to do more top ten lists in the future.

Looking forward to heading up the turnpike to Belmont this Saturday.  Jockey Club Gold Cup day is always a great day of racing.

THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!

Filed in Havre de Grace Race Track,thoroughbred racing history



19 Responses to “Havre de Grace Racetrack opens, 1912”

  1. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Regarding the bridge in the picture is that the same Susquehanna bridge that's on the the JFK Turnpike today?

    Also, just what was the catalyst for Havre de Grace's closing?

  2. Anonymous says:

    The following is from an article by Maryanna Skowronski in the Fall 1997 edition of the Harford Historical Bulletin:

    "Edward Burke who had run the track since 1912 died at the end of December 1943. Into the picture stepped General Milton A. Reckord, whose name forty-odd years later is still spoken in vitriolic tones by old horsemen.

    "A WWI veteran who during the late 1940's was also the President of the Harford County Racing Commission, Reckord gained, along with Senator Millard J. Tydings, control of a voting trust which held 37% of the track's stock. An under the table deal was made with the Maryland Jockey Club to sell 7,700 shares of racetrack stock to the organization for a total of $1,732,500. The plant was to be sold for development. Shareholders approved the deal, and Havre de Grace's dates were sold to the Jockey Club. Shortly thereafter Reckord was made President of the organization. The plant was never developed but instead was sold to the National Guard for the princely sum of $10.00. Reckord remained commandant."

  3. Halsey Minor says:

    If I win MJC in November I am going to rebuild Havre De Grace. I have done a ton of work on its feasibility for a short Saratoga like meet.

    Keep the faith. I am battling Stronach hard on MJC. I am half Maryland (mom) and half Virginia (dad) and all thoroughbred racing.

  4. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks you anonymous for the info about the track's closing.

    KnightSky: The bridge in the image appears to be the Route 40 Bridge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Hatem_Memorial_Bridge

  5. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Yes, thank you Anonymous for the insights.

    Rebuilding of Havre De Grace would certainly meaneither Laurel or Pimlico will have to be abandoned in an oversaturated horse racing market.

    So good luck to Mr. Minor battling the status quo.

  6. Anonymous says:

    If it were not for the Havre de Grace racetrack, I would not be here. My father was a jockey and came to HdG in the mid 30s, met my mother (my grandmother ran a rooming house and dining room catering to racetrackers) and married her. They were married for over 50 years.

  7. fred sparks says:

    There was also a race track in Bel Air Md. any info on it

  8. David R.Craig says:

    The Bel Air Tract was one of the six 1/2 mile tracks that existed in the state of Maryland along with the four mile tracks. They operated more like county fair sites than racetracks.

    The bridge in the distanct in the one photograph is the B&O RR Bridge. The Route 40 (Thomas Hatem) Bridge was not constructed until 1940.

    The Havre de Grace racetrack closed mostly because of politics–and the desire of General Reckord to find a facility for the National Guard (he had served as the state’s adjutant general). At the time The Graw was usually the second most profitable track in the state.

  9. Chrystal says:

    This is awesome – and sad. I would love to wander around the sites of the old tracks. Does the NG allow the public to tour the grounds?

  10. Victoria Keith says:

    I am in the area so recently visited the old track. I received a wonderful tour of the land and buildings.

    While I hate to lose our old tracks and parts of our history, unfortunately, there’s not much here to salvage. Buildings have been radically changed or demolished, there are many buildings that would need to be demolished, there isn’t much of beauty left to the old clubhouse building, there is a wastewater treatment plant built on the property, etc. Add to this the fact that its surroundings are a terrible eyesore, and this really would be sinking a fortune into something that’s not worth it.

  11. Rick Davies says:

    I was born In Havre De Grace in ’54 and am now writing a book a book about a family from there who was big with racing in the 1890′s. Fictional of course but there is a lot of racing history in Maryland prior to the ‘Graw. Cool article and very interesting place. Thanks…

  12. Silvio says:

    D R Craig

    Md half-milers…I remember Hagerstown, Cumberland, Timonium,
    Belair, Marlboro, what was the sixth? Bennings?

  13. This year’s Graw Days Festival is on October 8, 2011. 10-5 pm in Havre de Grace. We will be offering tours of the old track area and club house from 12-2. Don’t miss this chance to see the track and see some wonderful historic paraphernalia from the Dupont Estate, on display at the Bank of Histories on the Festival route (St. Johns to Washington – downtown).

    Everything is free. And if you want to top off the evening, come to the Graw Gala, a dinning & dancing extravaganza right out of the 1920′s. Tickets available on Ticket Leap.

    Find the Graw Days on Facebook!

    Thanks. ib

  14. Melissa says:

    OK so I know this is way after the initial article and posting. But I am looking for information on the old Bel Air race track and if there are any pictures out there of it? I would love to have a picture of that and the Havre de Grace track my grandfather was a trainer and while I have lots of pictures of him with the horses I would love to see the places he went. The Havre de Grace pictures on here are great.

  15. Joseph Martin says:

    Being that this is 2012,is anything planned in Havre de Grace this year in rememberence of the 1912 openining?
    A good friend of mine rode there ; the wonderful and under-rated, often forgotten rider, Tommy Luther. The true originater of the jockey guild. The Mob couldn’t get to him!

  16. LG Depkin says:

    I have an original (rare)photograph of “Cattail” ridden by Jockey E. Watters “up” with Wm. Ziegler – Owner and C. Phillips – Trainer – Aberdeen Stakes dated April 27, 1932 – @ HavredeGrace Md, racetrack. There are actually two photos with the top photo showing all eight horses racing in the foreground.
    Regarding Melissa’a question re: the Bel AirRacetrack now the location of the Harford Mall I believe that there are photographs hanging in the Long and Foster Real Estate Office just east of the intersetion of Rt 1 and Vietnam Memorial Hiway where Mr. Dietz used to pasture his cow (across from the McDonald’s)… Hope that helps.
    If anyone knows the history of the fellows listed in the top photo I would appreciate the information.

  17. The 2012 Graw Days Festival in Havre de Grace, Maryland is alive and well and planned for October 13th with daylong activities including artisan vendors, live period music all day (10 a.m. – 6:30 pm), a food court and local beer & wine speakeasy, historical displays and informative presentations (we are still looking for a lecturer to fill a spot) at a beautifully restored 1904 bank, antiquities, an art exhibit “inspired” by the nostalgia of the Graw Racetrack period, a musical revue at the old Opera House, carriage rides, a horseshoe tournament and other games for adults & children, as well as pony rides, a special stage for children, 20 carnival games, two bouncey houses, and and and!!!

    Graw Days @ Nite is our new street party with dancing running from 6:30 to 10:00 pm with a contemporary band, live and silent auction, dancing, and speakeasy beer & wine.

    Throughout the day, we will be running both walking tours of the area and bus tours taking guests out to the old Graw racetrack.

    Save the Date!

    Irmgarde Brown
    Chair,
    2012 Graw Days Festival
    Havre de Grace, Maryland

  18. Jack Hirschfeld says:

    For Joseph Martin: Sorry this is so late; Graw Days will be celebrated this year on October 13 in Havre de Grace. I don’t know if there is anything special for the 80th anniversary of the opening, but the festival gets bigger and better every year.

  19. Alton Macdonald says:

    Just read your article. Although, went to the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1971, just now starting to follow racing. Have met people who used to be in racing. Makes it more interesting.
    Alton MacDonald

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