The Dwyer Brothers according to Samuel Hildreth, 1926

Jul 11th 2013 09:00 pm |

Last week, Belmont Park hosted the Dwyer Stakes which is named for the famed brothers, Phil and Mike, who owned one of the most successful racing stables of the 1880s. The Dwyer Brothers story is well known. Owners of a butcher shop in Brooklyn, they began buying racehorses in the 1870s. They went on to own a slew of major stakes winners including five runners that won the Belmont Stakes in a span of six years.

They were one of the first New York-based racing operations to win the Kentucky Derby (Hindoo in 1881). They counted legendary runners like Miss Woodford, Hanover, Tremont, and Ben Brush in their roster of horses. If that isn’t enough, the Dwyers were among the investors that founded the Brooklyn Jockey Club and built the Gravesend Racetrack on Coney Island. For over a decade, the Dwyer Brothers stood at the forefront of racing during the period that New York emerged as the center of horse racing in America.

The Dwyer Brothers racing silks

The Dwyer Brothers racing silks

Much has been written about the Dwyer Brothers but nothing I have read surpasses the description from Hall of Fame trainer Samuel Hildreth’s 1926 autobiography, The Spell of the Turf. His insight about the character of Mike Dwyer, the more outgoing of the two brothers, is especially insightful. I made no effort to edit this down since I find every word worth sharing here.

This comes from the chapter titled “Turf Kings of the Eighties” from Samuel Hildreth’s The Spell of the Turf:

“I don’t reckon the race-tracks ever again will have the same kind of men around as they had then [1880s], some of them rough-and-ready fellows who had fought their way to the front through bulldog courage, a battle every inch of the way; rough and ready and blustery and scrappy on the outside, but when the pinch came to test the kind of stuff they were made of, as gentle and human on the inside as a chicken-hearted grandmother.

When you will ever find another team like the Dwyer brothers, Mike and Phil?

They were the kind I’m thinking of; out of sturdy parentage, but lacking in aristocratic bloodlines; products of the days when fellows had to use their biceps as well as their brains to get everything they got, but God-given with an abundance of the finer qualities of humans; keen and alert and business-like in their dealings on the race-track, but never willing to take an unfair advantage, and sportsmen both, to the last drop of their blood. No wonder they moved on from their humble station as neighborhood butchers to become the owners of one of the greatest racing stables the turf has ever seen….

…In their methods the Dwyers were different from the horsemen I had known all my life. Where the people of Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and Kansas would breed their own horses and take care of them with their own hands, the Dwyers would buy up the horses other men had bred and turn them over to men they hired to handle them. It was all new to me. It was even new to me the way Northerners talked about racing as a sport. A sport? Here they were talking about horse-racing as a sport – the thing [my father] Vincent Hildreth and his whole family had been doing all their lives and thinking about it all the time as though it was just as much a part of a human’s life as going to sleep at night.

And the money they would spend for a horse made me pop-eyed – remember I wasn’t many jumps removed from Pete Fuller and six dollars a month for riding and Mr. Paris and forty dollars a month for training. It was Mike Dwyer himself who explained to me what their idea was about buying a good race-horse. I was making racing plates for his horses at the time, but he thought a blacksmith was plenty good enough to talk to.

‘”If you ever want to build up a good racing stable, Hildreth, the only thing to do is to get the best horses the market offers,” he would confide to me. “Get plenty of horses, but get fast ones. Then you’ll make lots of money.”

And that was the principle both brothers followed. They had started out that way when they were butchers and just beginning to take an interest in racing, like so many other Brooklyn boys; they had found it profitable and they couldn’t see any reason for changing. If they wanted a horse they went out and bought him. In their time they must have owned altogether from two to three thousand horses, all kinds, stakes horses for the rich handicaps, selling platers for the cheaper races, and two-year-olds and three-year-olds for that class of racing.

In personality the two brothers were opposites. Phil, fine old gentleman that he was, got his enjoyment out of seeing their colors in front and out of the successful business they’d made of horse racing. The betting end of it wasn’t for him. Fifty dollars to the race was a fair bet for him and one hundred dollars a whopper. And in his quiet way he’d root that small bet home all the way from the barrier to the winning post.

But Mike Dwyer — there was a bettor, the biggest of his day and never a gamer one. I remember one day he bet ninety thousand dollars to win thirty thousand dollars — on a one to three shot. While the race was being run, Mike got all het [heated] up over an argument he was having with a friend and he clean forgot about his bet. All around him people were squawking and fighting as the field came down the stretch, but Mike just sat there thumping his leg and gabbing for dear life. The horses were galloping back to the judges stand before he remembered about the race.

“Say, boy who won that race?” he called to one of the Pinkertons standing near by.

“Your horse got beat, Mr Dwyer; he run second,” the officer told him.

“Well, I’ll be dinged; these ponies are a pesky bunch sometimes,” was all the rise the information got out of Dwyer.

Down at the Brooklyn Jockey Club’s track at Gravesend, which the Dwyer brothers financed and opened August 26, 1886, more than ten years after they’d taken to horse-racing, Mike used to sit under the judges stand to watch the horses run. Time and again I’ve seen him sitting there when I knew he had a smashing bet down on one of his horses. And he’d just sit easy and comfortable in his chair and not say a word unless somebody came along and spoke to him. From the looks of him you’d never know he had a nickel bet. If his horse won or lost he’d just get up from his chair after the race and amble back to the club-house lawn and talk about the weather or politics or anything else. As graceful a winner and as game a loser as I ever saw on the racetrack was Mike Dwyer.

One day we were talking between race and he said:

“Hildreth, I don’t see your colors in many races nowadays. What’s the trouble?”

“Truth is, Mr Dwyer, I have to be mighty careful about running in these selling races. I don’t want some halter man to come along and run my horses up and clean out the barn,” I told him.

Mike grinned.

“Well now, my boy, that is kind of serious,” he said (I was in my early twenties). After a moments thought, he added: “I’ll tell you how we can fix that. You just go ahead and run your horses. If anybody comes to bid them up after the races you can count on it that I’ll do a little bidding myself, and it won’t be lower than the fellow’s, ¬†either. Don’t worry about losing any of your horses. I’ll tend to that part.”

I knew he would stand by his word, no matter how much it might cost.

A rough and ready fellow, but with a heart as big as all outdoors. And in the end the horses took away from him most of the fortune they’d given him. His luck seemed to break with his health. When he was getting pretty feeble his attendants used to help him down to the track and he’d sit there all afternoon talking horse with his old friends, but not betting on them anymore. And while he was sitting there in an invalid’s chair, just a shadow of the strong, forceful fellow he had once been, I reckon the bygone days used to flit before Mike’s eyes and he’d go over and over again the glory of the past — the never-to-be-forgotten times when Hindoo and Luke Blackburn, Hanover and Kingston, Ben Brush and Miss Woodward, Handspring, and the other great racers from his string would come thumping down the stretch, in a cloud of dust, wearing the red, blue sash, red cap, his racing colors.


Samuel C. Hildreth and James R. Crowell, The Spell of the Turf : The Story of America Racing (1926)

Images of the Dwyer Brothers racing silks from: American Racing Colors: Colors of the Owners of Racing Horses as Worn by their Jockeys at the Meetings of the American Jockey Club

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Dwyer Brothers,New York racing history,Samuel Hildreth,thoroughbred racing history

4 Responses to “The Dwyer Brothers according to Samuel Hildreth, 1926”

  1. T.J. Connick says:

    Hildreth’s book has many high points; hard to beat his memories of the Dwyers.

    Your site only gets better; keep up the good work.

  2. kevin says:

    Thanks TJ – much appreciated!

  3. Joseph Martin says:

    It was such a great era of racing. I love reading about those days and The Spell Of The Turf ranks at the top. I once worked at the farm where Mr Hildreth trained for(Rancocas) and I loved the farm, the history and the charm of the farm. Those days are gone…but thinking about those days is still fun. Thanks once again!

  4. Emma T-S says:

    My grandmother was telling me stories of her family and she talked about my great-great-great grandfather, Phil Dwyer. This was fascinating reading about this part of me family. Thank You!