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.
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.
The Chesapeake Bay and stable area are visible in the foreground.
September 1927 (Link to source)
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
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!