Winter Racing at New Jersey’s Guttenberg Race Track, 1885-1893

Jan 28th 2010 07:10 am | Tags:

Sketch of Guttenberg Race Track from an 1892 newspaper article

Has anyone ever heard of the Guttenberg Race Track? I hadn’t. I came across a description of the track in an article about winter racing in the National Turf Digest from 1927 and, with a little digging, uncovered a number of interesting sources about the short-lived racing facility.  Turns out, it made quite an impression on those who were there during its brief history.

Remembered not for the quality of racing but for the time of year that it operated — it filled a void in the New York area for live racing when the major circuit shut-down for the season at the end of December.

From 1885 to 1893, the Gutenberg Race Track hosted the only true winter racing during the era (that is, racing where it was actually winter).  The track was located in, what is now, North Bergen, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan.

In 1927, the NTD described Guttenberg as follows:

“…the track was reached only by ferry and stage or horses cars, ‘The Gut’ had a grandstand that was protected by big windows of glass and mammoth stoves that made a pretense of providing heat, but the betting ring was big one and the fields were ample to attract lively speculation, there were few occasions when weather halted the programs and form reversals did not surprise the players.”

An article published in 1892 in the Lewistown Evening Journal in Maine, under the headline “Of Winter Racing : It is Practiced Regularly on only One Track” offered a comprehensive description of the track soon before it closed:

“Guttenberg, N.J. [is] the only spot or locality on the habitable globe where horse racing had gone on without a single day’s interruption throughout an entire winter season….It must be a blizzard of uncommon dimensions to cause a postponement of the daily Guttenberg races, and the snow must fall thick and fast that can get the better of the all night track shoverler and render the race course impossible to race upon…”

“…Betting upon the races has become a business with a large number of New Yorkers, and although the city poolrooms ‘attend to the wants’ of a great many, there is still a large contingent of bettors who prefer to visit the track.  The daily attendace throughout the winter seldom falls below 3000 and on Saturdays and holidays there are frequently from 10,000 to 12,000 persons present, the price of admission being uniformly one dollar…”

“…The receipts of the [North Hudson Jockey] club independent of admissions are obtained from the rental of bookmaking stands at the steep price of $100 a day for each bookmaker, between twenty and thirty bookmakers being constantly on hand…”

“…There are probably, including trainers, jockeys, stable boys, and helpers generally, at least 1000 souls who live and make their permament homes at Guttenberg…”

Four years after the first thoroughbred meet, in the fall of 1889, Guttenberg underwent major renovations.  The track was reconfigured from a half-mile to a full mile; the grandstand was enclosed and “fitted up with enormous heaters.”  The betting ring was expanded to accommodate an “army of bookmakers.”  The article in the Lewistown paper stated that everything during this renovation “…was arranged with an obvious view of the permanency of winter racing as an institution.”

The article implied that vagaries existed around the existence and enforcement of gambling laws in the state of New Jersey.  It reported that arrests had been made at the track but “…bookmakers and officials arrested are quite as promptly released on bail by a justice of the peace, who has established a convenient court in an unused stable just outside the track.”

It concluded on this positive note:

“The Guttenberg people, apparently calm in the assurance that they will not be seriously interfered with by the authorities of Hudson county, N.J., claim to be entirely indifferent as to whether the legislature does or does not legalize their money making business.”  Read the full article here

Indifference to the possibility of legislative action proved to be the wrong attitude.  The article downplayed the serious legal issues surrounding the track — making one question the intent and/or competence of the author.  Arrests of pool sellers, bookmakers, and track management had started as early as 1891, putting the operation of the track on shaky ground soon after the winterization of the facility.  The end came in 1893 when a bill passed the state legislature that banned winter racing in New Jersey.  In the words of one legislator “winter racing is an inhumanity and none but the confirmed gambler will patronize it.”  That year, Guttenberg closed its doors forever to horse racing.

[Sidenote: It seems the bill that closed Guttenberg was not the same bill that would eventually end all racing in the state of New Jersey.  It is no coincidence, however, that the enforcement of anti-racing statutes that shuttered the original Monmouth Park also came in 1893.]

GUTTENBERG’S POST RACING LIFE
In 1910, the great grandstand at ‘The Gut’, constructed to keep race patrons warm during the winter months, burned in a fire described as “a spectacular blaze” that “illuminated” the river and was “clearly seen from Manhattan.”    By that time, the track and facilities were owned by an old innkeeper who lived in part of the facility and devoted the track to “automobilists.”   The clubhouse was burned down to its foundation.

Memories of the racetrack remained in 1919. When the land was sold at auction, the notice in the New York Tribune read “At Last, The Old Guttenburg[sic] Race Track Property to Be Sold in Seperate Lots.” (see right)

In 1957, Audax Minor, the race writer for the New Yorker, wrote this in an article about the troubles with winter racing in the northeast:

“….it gives old stagers, who are always grumbling that the younger generation is a bunch of softies, a chance to recall their days in the nineties at Guttenberg, a Jersey track, just across the river from Seventy-second Street, that used to run all winter. (It was a sort of open-air horse room, where you could also bet on the New Orleans and California races.)  No matter how hard it snowed at Guttenberg – and there were blizzards in those days – a crew merely shoveled a wide path around the track for the horses, and the races went off on schedule.”

Today, over a century after the track shut down for good, the area where it once stood is known as the “Racetrack Section” in North Bergen.

SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS

Of Winter Racing,” Lewiston Evening Journal, Febuary 26, 1892

“No More Winter Racing,” New York Times, March 12, 1893

“Race-Track Men Please Guilty,” June 1, 1894

“Will the ‘Big Four’ Escape?,” New York Times, April 21, 1895

“Fire Ends Old Guttenburg[sic],” New York Times, January 16, 1910

Minor, Audax, “The Race Track,” December 14, 1957

Note: The name of the track was spelled “Guttenberg” and “Guttenburg” in contemporary sources.  For the sake of consistency, I used the “e” version throughout for this article .

And don’t forget to sign up for the best Derby Prep Alerts in the business at Hello Race Fans!

THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!

Filed in New Jersey Racing,thoroughbred racing history,winter racing



12 Responses to “Winter Racing at New Jersey’s Guttenberg Race Track, 1885-1893”

  1. Guttenberg racetrack? Well that’s news to me. And having grown up in that region I must have been that Nungessers, North Bergen area hundreds of times! ;-)

    Currently Guttenberg is one of the smallest geographical towns in NJ,
    but I believe the track was located near Palisades General Hospital / NY Waterway Ferry lies today.

    The area is technically now “North Bergen” but it features plenty of flat land for railroad tracks used during the industrial era. There is a facebook page devoted to finding out more here:

    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=9117543111&topic=11448

  2. Linda Dougherty says:

    Thanks so much for writing about this! As a native of Hudson County, I am extremely interested in the history of New Jersey horse racing, and I never knew this track even existed! It must have been quite a sight seeing the horses race in heavy snow. It always saddens me when tracks are closed and the land sold, but this information you posted helped bring the old Guttenberg back to life. Thanks again … will be a frequent reader of your blog from now on, as I just discovered it.

  3. Helene Conway says:

    Excellent work Kevin! Thank you so much for researching/writing this. I believe I am your greatest fan as you delving into a world I am obsessed with. With each thought I have on the topic of racing history I am stunned by my closeness with many of these historic figures (G Ryall/A Minor was my father’s friend) yet I only enjoyed their company and stories. Yes, those experiences fueled my interests now, but if only I would have bled them for info then….

  4. Pete says:

    luv ‘em..

  5. DJ says:

    Actually, it was also known as Nungesser’s Gutenburg Racetrack, and was located at the the Hudson/Bergen County Line atop the Hudson Palisades. The intersection is still called Nungessers and the neighborhood to the south of it is called the Racetrack Section. In some small way it still lives on….

  6. Steve Riess says:

    Thanks very much for the research. I have finished a book entitled “The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime. 1. Horse Racing, Politics, and Crime in New York, 1865-1913″ with Syracuse University Press in the summer of 2011. The book includes a chapter on horse racing in NJ in the late 19th century, and featuers Guttenberg, along with its partner in crime, Gloucester, and, of course the elite Monmouth Park.

    Steve Riess
    Bernard Brommel Research Professor
    Dept. of History
    Northeastern Illinois University

  7. CURIOUS says:

    I am interested in track records that might give jockey names, and whether African Americans were allowed to work or attend the track. Would anyone know?

  8. Paul says:

    Thank you so much for this work! I am also interested in jockey records for this track. My great grandfather’s obit specifically mentions that he rode this track (as well as its companion track, Gloucester) with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons when both were young men.

  9. Laura says:

    Dear Kevin,
    While on staff at a NJ daily paper, I was working on a condensed history of NJ thoroughbred racing to run in installments prior to Monmouth Park’s hosting of The Breeder’s Cup. Unfortunately, a newsroom reorganization ended my involvement with horse racing at the paper and the series never was written. I left the paper shortly thereafter. Just today I stared at my dusty file box representing long nights of NJ racing research. I considered packing it up for permanent storage. Then, for the heck of it and first time in five years, I did an Internet search for “Guttenberg Racetrack” and stumbled upon your site. I was amazed to find several others who are interested in NJ’s racing history. That said, here’s a few interesting items for you and your readers.
    - Organized horse racing has been around for about 300 years in NJ. In the 1700′s Gimcrack, Quicksilver, and Macaroni (a son of Wildair) were being raced at the Paulus Hook course in the sand hills of Jersey City. In the early 1830′s, a second track was constructed at Jersey City known as “The Beacon Course.)
    - The first “derby” staged in America was held in Paterson in June, 1864 and more than 10,000 people attended. (That’s right, 10,000!!!).
    - There were, in the 1800′s, about 10 horse race tracks in NJ. If you include the country tracks, where racing was sporadic, there were probably more.
    - At Guttenberg, horses not only raced in snow but in fog as well. And since some bookmakers took bets even after a race started, some enterprising bettors would have a friend scale a pole, see who was in the lead, and signal them to bet on that horse.
    - Artist William Glackens painted “Outside the Guttenberg Track” and it can be viewed on the Internet. However, don’t let the shabby outer grounds fool you. I’ve seen a (poor) copy of a photo of the Guttenberg clubhouse, and it’s evident it was a pretty swanky place.
    - In response to CURIOUS, I’ve seen photos of African American jockeys and stable hands from that era. I don’t know if they were permitted to attend races, though.
    -
    -

  10. cookie says:

    I am doing research on a trophy I have from 1893 – so far I am not having any luck – it is the Waldorf Prize from June 7, 1893 – I think the initials are CFB – Charles F. Bates – any info regarding the Four in Hand Race on that day will greatly be appreciated. Thank you!

  11. BART TALAMINI says:

    THE RACETRACK WAS LOCATED WEST OF BERGENLINE AV AND SOUTH OF KENNEDY BLVD. THERE WAS AN AMUSEMENT PARK ADJACENT TO IT. NUNGESSER’S HOTEL WAS LOCATED JUST NORTH WHERE WHITE CASTLE IS TODAY JUST IN NORTH BERGEN. IN THE HOTEL WAS THE TALAMINI FAMILY PRODUCE STORE WHERE THE TALAMINI FAMILY LIVED OSWALDO PNUTS WAS DAD NORA,OLGA SAM ANNA EDIE WERE CHILDREN MOTHERE DIED IN FLU EPIDEMIC OF THAT ERA.TALAMINI FAMILY LATER OWENED BUSSES THAT LEFT FOR NYC AND JERSEY CITY AS WELL AS A LUNCH WAGON IN BUS DEPOT

  12. Sally says:

    We came across a plaque at Saratoga race track Thursday that mentioned the owner of the guttenberg race track and also Saratoga race track. He was pretty crooked which is why Saratoga went down hill until mr Whitney bought it from him.

Leave a Reply