Oct 23rd 2012 09:30 pm |
I made a discovery for the Great American Racetrack Project a few weeks back. This one happened to be right under my nose in an area of Philadelphia that is about as ugly as you will find but passed by thousands of commuters daily. In fact, I have driven past this spot many times and never would have imagined the history there.
Point Breeze Park opened in the mid-nineteenth century in Philadelphia but disappeared as a venue for horse racing in the early days of the automobile age. While any indication of the track has long disappeared from the city landscape, Point Breeze Park still exists according to Google Maps (right). I can assure you it’s no longer there.
Point Breeze Park was founded as a trotting track in 1855 and raced thoroughbreds for the first time in 1860. In 1876, the Grand Exposition Stakes was won by a colt named Vagrant who had secured a place in racing history by winning the second ever Kentucky Derby a little over a month before at Churchill Downs. The thoroughbred meetings faded from the track by the 1880s but it remained a significant track on the trotting circuit until the end of the century. By the early 1900s, the track no longer hosted horse racing but remained a popular venue for racing automobiles. The first race car fatality in the city happened there in 1906. Racing events can be found in local newspapers up until the 1920s but references to the track in contemporary sources are non-existent by the 1930s.
Descriptions of the track at Point Breeze are few. In 1860, on the occasion of the first “legal” thoroughbred racing in the city since prior to the American Revolution, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article that provides a fascinating glimpse into horse racing at the dawn of the Civil War:
Last week was rendered remarkable here…by the inauguration of an English sport, long the favorite of princes and people. The first horse-race authorized by law in Pennsylvania since her colonial days, came off at the Point Breeze Park…
…The horses first kept for [racing] were pacers, that probably also served various useful domestic purposes. The trotting horse, also, has this recommendation, and has probably been held in special esteem here on that account; one day he can be entered in a race, and the next employed to serve his master’s customers with beef. The legitimate race, however, has always been held by sporting men to be that of the thoroughbred horse at the top of his speed.
This sport was certainly presented to the public, on Wednesday last, in as unobjectionable a form as it has ever assumed. In fact, the absence of gambling, drinking, ruffianism, and the other usual concomitants of the race ground, made it difficult to realize that anything more than the usual diversions from the Park were to be presented. The unusual number of orderly and respectable people, accompanied by their wives and daughters, gave a tone to the entertainment rarely observed heretofore.
There are solid objections to racing, as there are to most kinds of amusements, and doubtless the time occupied in attending them might be better employed…The public will have amusements, and it is the part of the judicious legislator not to combat or deny the fact, but so to regulate the amusements as to make them as wholesome as possible. A fondness for contests of speed seems to be a very general taste; in fact, exhibitions having no such purpose are often converted into arenas of this kind in spite of their managers. In England the taste is countenanced and catered to by the very highest classes of society. The Queen attends the races, and the horses of her Prime Minister contend for the prizes in her presence.
The Point Breeze Park offers great facilities for such exhibitions, and if the company should continue to offer liberal stakes, they will draw as large a concourse of people to our city as any fair of the United States Agricultural Society. The Southern and Western people are particularly fond of the sport, and in fact, they alone in this country now possess any considerable number of thoroughbred horses. They will be glad to bring their stables as far north as Philadelphia and although late in the field, we may, after all, have the most attractive course in the country.
The hopes for Point Breeze to emerge as a prominent venue for thoroughbreds did not meet the expectations of the Philadelphia newsman in 1860. The coming Civil War and the emergence of New York as a powerhouse for thoroughbred racing after the war were two of the major events that thwarted any chance for Philadelphia to become an important racing center.
The highlight of Point Breeze’s thoroughbred history would come in 1876 with two race meetings held during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. That was the year Kentucky Derby winner Vagrant won the Grand Exposition Stakes at Point Breeze and some of the most prominent owners of the day brought their horses to the meetings in June and August. During the summer of 1876, unprecedented numbers of Americans visited Philadelphia for the Centennial. One can reasonably conclude that the meetings that year were among the most well attended in the track’s history.
Here is the nomination list for the 1876 Grand Exposition Stakes won by Vagrant from the American Turf Register and Racing Calendar:
My production has been way down this year in producing content for Colin’s Ghost, but I have found easy inspiration with local racing history, so I’m glad I stumbled upon this “discovery.” The current state of horse racing in and around Philly is embarrassing but I am finding that its history is something worth pursuing.
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
“Our Races,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 October 1860
I discovered that Point Breeze Park still existed on Google Maps via this article: Phantom Point Breeze Park and the Persistence of Cartographic Error
Nominations for the two thoroughbred meets in 1876 can be found in the American Turf Register and Racing Calendar available in Google Books
Derby Auctions is a new advertiser here at Colin’s Ghost. They have a great collection of racing history for sale (including the riding crop used in the 1980 Kentucky Derby by Jacinto Vasquez aboard Genuine Risk) in a new auction that launches on November 2. Be sure to check it out: http://www.derbyauctions.com
I will have a few more posts prior to next weekends Breeders’ Cup…I can’t believe its BC time already!
Thanks for reading and good luck!
Filed in thoroughbred racing history