Belmont Park, “Consecrated to racing,” 1937

May 23rd 2013 09:55 pm |

Belmont Park, 1913

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As is the case sometimes, I am sitting on a bunch of half finished or almost finished articles. So, what did I do tonight? I started another one, of course.

Sometimes when poring through pages of historical documents, you come across a piece that is so timely that you can’t wait to share it. That was the case a few hours ago while paging through a 1937 edition of the Turf and Sport Digest. I found an article called “Traditional Belmont,” about the grand track in New York, that offers an interesting contrast to the recent announcement about Hollywood Park. The California track that has hosted a slew of human and equine racing legends since opening in 1938 will close for good at the end of the year. All of the history and tradition at Hollywood amounts to little against the pressures of bottom-line driven business.

Race tracks across the country have closed with some frequency in recent years. Great tracks, however, tracks that served as the stage for legendary horses and events seem like they will be around forever. The end of Hollywood Park proves that history does not amount to much in the face of the incessant pressure to make a buck.

Belmont Park, 2008

The value of the land at Hollywood Park is why its owners decided its history as a race track will end in 2013. Think about that as you read this 1937 piece about Belmont Park from Turf & Sport writer O’Neil Sevier:

[Belmont Park] represents a five-million dollar investment that in thirty-two years hasn’t paid and probably will never pay a dividend, nor [yeild] a penny of interest on the frozen capital involved, although it could be disposed of tomorrow at profit running into millions.

Partly in Queens County, hence partly in the City of New York, partly in Nassau, and directly in the path of snooty suburban expansion, not more than eighteen miles from Broadway by rail or motor highway, only five miles from Jamaica’s and about eight miles from Flushing’s civic centers, this vast property is perfectly adapted to what the real estate exploiters call ‘restricted’ development. Hundreds of $55,000 to $100,000 homes could be erected on a square mile of ground, each with a border of green around it…

…All agree that [Belmont Park] owners could demolish its buildings, obliterate its race tracks, level its hedges, and build themselves and clear seven to eight millions…No big-shot of the real estate racket motors past it or reads about the racing conducted within the confines of its high iron fences without slobbering a little.

There is no likelihood, though, that any of them will get his itching hands on a deed to it, not for many, many years. Not, at least, during the lifetime of the heads of the two branches of the Whitney family, grandsons of William C. Whitney, and of Joseph E. Widener, a son of the late P.A.B. Widener, of Philadelphia, whose partner the first Whitney was in the eighties and nineties in various Wall street enterprises. It is consecrated to racing.”

What has changed that Belmont Park survived the temptation of the “big-shot real estate racket” in the 1930s but those same pressures will raze Hollywood Park less than a century later? Is it the simple explanation that horse racing’s days are numbered or does it speak to bigger cultural shifts where money and profit supersede every other consideration? I find myself wondering are the kind of people who make up the ownership class in today’s racing a different breed than the Whitneys, Wideners, and Vanderbilts of yesteryear?

Times change, but according to this article from 1937, Belmont Park had been open for over thirty years without paying a dividend and yet it still stands today over a century later. The situation at Hollywood Park is similar to the situation at Belmont Park back in the 1930s, but it remains while Hollywood Park will soon be gone.

It’s too easy to make grand conclusions about how things were better in the past but it’s always far more complicated than that. Simple explanations that idealize the imagined ‘good old days’ rarely hold-up against any real scrutiny. What we do know: Hollywood Park will be no more come 2014 but Belmont Park will still be racing. Maybe it’s best to focus on what remains instead of what is lost.

See you in a few weeks at the “consecrated” racing ground in New York…


O’Neil Sevier, “Traditional Belmont,” Turf and Sport Digest, June 1937

Oxbow, Preakness, 2013

Had a great time at Pimlico for this year’s Preakness last Saturday. Was disappointed with Orb’s run but it was great to see the human connections of Oxbow back in the spotlight for a Triple Crown race. I managed to snap a decent picture of the winner as he was making his way to the track (right). If you have never been to Pimlico for a Preakness Saturday, you should add it to your bucket list. The folks at the Maryland Jockey Club always put on a great show!

Thanks for reading and good luck…

Filed in Belmont Park,New York Racing Association,New York racing history,thoroughbred racing history

7 Responses to “Belmont Park, “Consecrated to racing,” 1937”

  1. Marlaine Meeker says:

    So sad but greed always comes in first. I am very worried for the future of horseracing in the U.S. I hope the the Ghosts of Hollywood Park will haunt the grounds forever. Thank you Colins Ghost for all the glimpses of past,present,and possible future.

  2. Patty Vance says:

    Hi Kevin Another wonderful story! I always look forward to the articles you post. Although not “great”, Detroit Race Course, located in Livonia, Michigan, was a piece of local history, that was cast aside in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Now, instead of employing 1000’s of people both on and off track and pumping 1000’s of dollars into the economy, local and statewide, we have another shopping center. Yes, we really needed another one of those in the area! It is very sad to see Hollywood Park go the way of DRC, I am glad I got to visit several years ago. Keep up the good work, Kevin! Patty

  3. T. J. Cassidy says:

    Bear in mind that Belmont Park opened in 1905 to replace Morris Park (in the East Bronx) which by that time was succumbing to urban development after only 15 years of operation (it was on the rail route between NYC and New England.)

    Morris Park opened in 1889 to replace Jerome Park (in the present-day central Bronx), which had lasted 30 years until urban sprawl dictated a new reservoir to replace the one at the site of the modern-day New York Public Library.

    Not that I’m justifying any closure of Belmont, but it’s worth noting that if Big Sandy has managed to survive urban sprawl – and the idiocies of the American racing industry – and the outlawing of gambling on racing (!) – then it’s also the product of urban sprawl. It seems only the fame of the Belmont Stakes as the Third Jewel manages to keep the track open today.

  4. Jeanne W says:

    You must have been right beside me. My friend caught almost the exact moment as Oxbow left the barn.

  5. Launch says:

    How much alcohol were you pouring? And why would you have been pouring it through documents anyway?

  6. Kevin says:

    Thanks Marlaine and Patty for the kind words.

    T.J.: Always appreciate the long view of things…interesting perspective. Thanks!

    Hi Jeanne: Sorry I missed you. I got there just as Oxbow was heading out. Love being by the stakes barn before the Preakness. So exciting!

    Launch: Ha! Yes, fixed that grammar fail. Thanks!

  7. 48Flat says:

    Just stumbled upon your website and have spent the last hour or so reading some of your articles. I’m HOOKED!