Gloucester Race Track in New Jersey, 1890 to 1893

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.

A red pin marks the approximate location of the Gloucester Race Track. Click to open in Google Maps

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!

Filed in Fitzsimmons, Sunny Jim,Gloucester Race Track,horse racing history,New Jersey Racing,Race Tracks, United States,thoroughbred racing history

6 Responses to “Gloucester Race Track in New Jersey, 1890 to 1893”

  1. Linda Dougherty says:

    Wonderful post, great information! Thanks for researching this!

  2. Heidi says:

    That an entire racetrack can rise and fall in the span of three years amazes me. Looking forward to future entries on this long-dead track.

  3. Joseph Martin says:

    Love racetrack history. I enjoyed this story about Gloucester. Not far from the “White Horse Pike”. Would love to travel back in time. Thanks for this interesting story!

  4. Paul Joseph Pluth says:

    A very interesting post. There were four tracks of that kind in that era: Gloucester, Guttenburg, Elizabeth, and Clifton. They were different in their management styles and degree of honesty, but they all were legally put out of business by 1894 because of the scandalous nature of their operations and the economic threat that they posed to the major metropolitan tracks.

    Contrary to the statement quoted in the article, some very good horses from that era appeared. Some of them were past their prime, granted, but many were not. Kentucky Derby winner MacBeth II made nearly three dozen showings. Although they were not as important then as now, the lists of Preakness winners (Jacobus, Dunboyne, Refund, Buddhist, Montague) and Belmont Stakes champions (Eric, Burlington, Foxford, Comanche) running their were impressive.

    KD winner Riley ran several times at Elizabeth. Tammany and Lamplighter were featured at a match race at Guttenburg in 1893. The list of other notables who also won major/great races elsewhere is long: Barnum, Kingston, Yorkville Belle, Raceland, Correction, Tristan, Banquet, Eurus and Longstreet. These lists above represent well over 300 races, some of them with several of the mentioned participants involved in the same ones.

  5. Paul Joseph Pluth says:

    I might add to the above post that Linden Park was another venue which was in that milieu, also. It tended to have the traditionally shorter meetings, and on a more solid footing.

    In addition to many of the same “name” horses, Firenze appeared there once in 1890 and was slated for another, except for an unfavorable weight assignment which curtailed it.

  6. Daniel Honig says:

    I believed my grandfather D A Honig owned that track.From what i understand he spent 1 million building it.Can someone confirm that?