Sep 21st 2011 10:45 pm |
One hundred and forty-five years ago next week, Jerome Park in New York opened for business. While it lasted less then 30 years, it’s opening marked a key moment in the history of New York racing.
In Steven Reiss’s outstanding The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime, he wrote that critics at the time “immediately recognized [Jerome] as the finest turf facility in the United States.” Jerome was an important racing venue, hosting the early editions of the Belmont Stakes, but it also became, in the words of the Spirit of the Times in 1881, “…the favored shrine, the Mecca of all that was cultured refined, and fashionable in New York society.” If one were to look for the “moment” in U.S. history when horse racing moved from a rural pastime to a city sport, the opening of Jerome Park is as significant an event as you will find.
The physical plant and configuration of Jerome Park would be unfamiliar to the modern race goer. The race conditions at Jerome would be something that today’s race fan would find strange. However, the same desire that draws a diverse collection of people to the spectacle of racing today, existed many years ago in New York when Jerome Park opened. It was this idea that bubbled to the surface as I read through accounts of its 1866 opening.
One of the best accounts of Jerome’s opening day comes from an unidentified writer in the New York Daily Tribune who writes more like an overwrought novelist then reporter. The unknown author’s colorful and, at times, inscrutable description of the first day of racing at Jerome Park has a number of gems that are worth reviving. Here are a few selections from the New York Daily Tribune story about opening day on September 26, 1866:
Country folk and portly citizens have all turned out in their most gorgeous raiment [clothing] to witness the beginning of a new Olympiad in the art of horse breaking. On the ridge at the base of the yon heavily wooded fringe are grouped in thick masses at least 20,000 people of different classes and castes in the social estate, all eager and showing every tension to get a glance of the heroic quadrupeds who have made fame synonymous with their names in the history of the American Turf..
While describing the physical structure of the new plant, the author returned to describing the crowd:
…Here in the central or Club stand are seated the elite of the wealth, commercial enterprise, beauty and refinement of the city, whose waters receive tribute from the furthest extremities of the globe. Here are merchants clad in fine linen and broadcloth, whose ships cover every sea and flutter their white canvas in every port, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, putting to utter shame the boasted riches of the haughty burghers of Genoa and Venice. Here are prosperous tradesmen…who have seen hosts go forth to do battle for the flag, equipped out of their own purses, with a generosity and public spirit that had no parallel…
The reference in the last line, no doubt, refers to the Civil War and the economic contributions that some businessmen made to the war effort.
…As for the ladies, how could pen describe the magnificence of the costumes worn by them or the exquisite blending of every known tint or color. Looking on the Grand Stand for a moment at the confusion of silks, satins, velvets, and jewels, it requires but a very slight effort in the imagination to be deceived into the idea that this is after all an opera matinee…
After the describing the wealthy class and beautifully dressed women, the author pointed his descriptive eye to the ground level among the masses:
…Directly fronting the Grand Stand are assembled in all the principal sporting and betting men of the metropolis, some of them with hardened features, and all with keen eyes and wits ready to take advantage of the unwary or verdant who may have an itching to squander their hard earned dollars. Scattered around the Course are several well-known pugilists, who left the ring and the boxing arena for a few days to enjoy the country freshness and rural hospitality…
…fashionably-dressed gamblers and blacklegs [aka “cardsharps”] infest the vicinity of the main stand, but owing to the strict rules enforced by the management they are like Othello without an occupation, and can do no harm to the innocents…
…Outside the picket fences surrounding the enclosure there are thousands of spectators congregated, who have not the dollar to pay the admission fee, and are compelled, therefore, to elongate their necks to distinguish the horses about to run. The rules declare that no liquor shall be sold on the ground, but enterprising tradesmen and hucksters pitch their tents as near the enclosure as they dare, and entice the thirsty souls from the excitements of the race…
In addition to representatives from every strata of society, also in attendance for opening day was the hero of the recently ended Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant. While today’s racing crowd no longer enjoys the company of future presidents, it does partake in liquor (for an inflated price) and gamble (with the blessing of state government), two activities explicitly (although ineffectively) banned by the owners of Jerome Park. As strange as looking back is for us, it would be equally strange if the racegoers in 1866 could look ahead to 2011.
Jerome Park is long gone, buried under a city reservoir now surrounded by city sprawl. It’s legacy as the first of the New York City race tracks, progenitor of the current Belmont and Aqueduct Race Tracks, is one that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Sources, News, and Notes
“The American Jockey Club,” New York Daily Tribune, 1866 September 26
Quotes in the second paragraph from Steven Reiss, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime (Syracuse University Press, 2011)
The countdown to the end of the racing season begins. I will be at Belmont Park on October 1st for what is shaping up to be a big day of racing. Hope to see you there!
Thanks for reading and good luck…