Aug 15th 2012 08:30 am |
A race track in Gloucester City, New Jersey, a ferry ride across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has long faded from racing and local history. Gloucester (pronounced ‘Glawster’ locally) opened on September 1, 1890 and closed on November 30, 1893. I have spent the last few weeks collecting sources about Gloucester and what I have found so far is fascinating.
What is most unbelievable about the history of Gloucester is the extent of corruption among track management, bookmakers, gamblers, and horsemen. Brazen disregard for the rule of law by some, ultimately ruined the short-lived track. Gloucester became notorious, much like its northern neighbor Guttenburg, for dirty deals and crooked results.
The reputation of the track’s denizens lived on years after it closed. An association with Gloucester carried negative connotations that outlived the track itself. In 1899, six years after closing, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a headline: “Old Gloucester Horseman Fail to Run to Form and Get the Ax.” According to the report, a trainer, jockey, and bookmaker, formerly of Gloucester, did such a “glaring job” of running a drugged horse at Aqueduct that “the rats under the grandstand poked their heads from their holds and sniffed, instinct bringing them to the surface as a dead horse attracts a buzzard.” The old Gloucester crew was thrown off the grounds in New York.
The first time I ever heard about the existence of the track in Gloucester came in Sunny Jim, the biography of Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons by Jimmy Breslin. Sunny Jim landed in Gloucester after quitting a job as a stable hand in New York, right around the time the South Jersey track opened. He cut his teeth as a jockey in Gloucester. In fact, he won his first career race, less than a month after the track’s inaugural race, on a horse named Crispin. His career as a jockey brought years of agonizing struggles with his weight before he made the fortuitous switch to full-time training around 1907.
Over the next few weeks and months, I plan on revisiting the track in Gloucester (see map for its former location) and bring some of the unbelievable stories I have found about crooked jockeys, trainers, bookies, and track officials. This week, I wanted to publish a few selections from my first introduction to Gloucester from Sunny Jim. The description of Gloucester found in Jimmy Breslin’s account are as detailed as you will find.
Here is how Breslin and Fitzsimmons described the track in 1962 in the pages of Sunny Jim:
Gloucester was a small town backing onto the Delaware River. A ferry ran across to Philadelphia. The track and the carnival area adjoining it became known as the Coney Island of Philadelphia [known by locals as the ‘Beachfront’], with such added attractions as dice tables, roulette wheels, and places where you could play cards for money in case the Ferris wheel was too crowded. A place behind the Bonaventure Hotel, which was famous for shad dinners, was the headquarters of Gloucester gamblers. The town drew a heavy set of Philadelphians, who even at this early date were committing their sins out of town.
The Gloucester track had no particular opening or closing dates. Normally, a 50-day race meeting is considered plenty for the economy of any one area – except in New York City, where there are enough people to keep anything going. In little Gloucester, however, they ran 580 days in one stretch. Snow, cold, ice, rain; that meant nothing. The only thing that could stop horses from running around at Gloucester was either politics or an absence of money among the players…
“…The Glouceser track was three-quarters of a mile around of well-kept running surface. The grandstand was a wooden, single-level structure about 150 feet long. It was covered with a roof. On a good day, a crowd of 1500 would pack the stand and spill out onto the lawn in front of it. The races attracted small fields of six and seven horses and their names were not the flaring, colorful ones of horses on the big time. Owners did not have much time to sit down and think up names for horses at tracks like Gloucester so Willie B and Eddie M were far more common than anything along the lines of Equipoise.
The purses were small. A race worth $300, of which the winner received $250, was big. Most of them were worth half that. But it was a place, and so were all the small tracks like it, where you could learn how to take care of horses that run in races. Sam Hildreth and William P. Burch, who could teach horses to run as well as any men who ever lived, were at Gloucester in this era.
When you look at these tracks [like Gloucester], you get an idea of why people yelled so much about them…larceny became the major occupation of many connected with running the places.”
Larceny indeed…more to come on that in the coming weeks.
Sources, News, and Notes
Jimmy Breslin, Sunny Jim: The Life of America’s most Beloved Horseman James Fitzsimmons. (1962)
“Race Track Gossip: Old Glocester Horsemen Fail to Run to Form and Get the Ax,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 November 1899. A quick note on this article: It was written by “Ed. Cole.” I believe this could be the same journalist who was behind the Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil.
Counting down for my trip to Saratoga…i’ll be rolling into town on Thursday and will be trackside Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Thanks for reading!