The Haskell and The TraversBy: Ron Hale
BUICK HASKELL HANDICAP (Gr I)
Since the new Monmouth Park opened in 1946, the name Amory L. Haskell has appeared off and on several times on the track's stakes calendar. It wasn't until 1980 that the present-day Haskell Invitational Handicap became a fixture for three-year-olds and Monmouth Park officially dates the race back to 1968.
Racing at Monmouth Park on the shores of New Jersey actually began on Independence Day in 1870. The track was an instant success and in some years offered the highest purse distribution of any track in North America. In 1890, the Monmouth Park was completely rebuilt into one of the finest facilities in the country. It was bad timing, however.
After the new stands had been opened only one year, Monmouth was forced to move its 1891 meeting to Jerome Park in New York because of continued repressive legislation against gambling in New Jersey. Monmouth was able to reopen for its 46-day meetings in 1892 and 1893, but anti-gambling legislation late in 1893 forced the track to close its doors forever.
In the April 3, 1897 edition of The Thoroughbred Record, the following was reported:
"The news will be received with regret that it has been definitely decided to put up the magnificent Monmouth Park race track at auction on April 22, 1897. Up to the last minute, the owners and mortgagees had hoped for a turn in the tide of public sentiment, but it is doubtful whether during the next ten years any favorable amendments to the existing laws in the State can be urged with any fair chance of success."
Racing would not return to the Jersey shores for half a century.
In 1939, Amory L. Haskell of Red Bank, N.J., led a successful effort to have pari-mutuel wagering legalized in New Jersey. He immediately set about to build a new Monmouth Park to pick up where the successful track of the same name was located from 1870-1893.
War-time shortages of materials delayed the completion of the track until 1946. There was no rush, however, because war-time restrictions on travel would have prevented the track from opening even if it had been completed before the end of World War II.
Haskell served as president of Monmouth Park from opening day in 1946 until he died on April 12, 1966 at the age of 72. He had served as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Assn. (TRA) from 1954-55; the National Horse Show Assn. from 1938-1946; and was president of the United Hunts Racing Assn. at the time of his death.
A native of New York, Haskell graduated from Princeton and served in the Navy during World War I. Prior to taking over Monmouth Park's development, he had served as vice president of General Motors* and president of a New York radio station.
(* -- Ironically, 30 years after Haskell's death, the Buick Division of General Motors Corp. has become a sponsor of the Haskell.)
The Travers is the oldest stakes race in America for which complete historical records are available. The race was inaugurated in 1864 at Saratoga Race Course and has been run in all but five years since with all but three runnings at Saratoga. (Due to war-time restrictions on travel, the 1943, 1944 and 1945 Saratoga meetings were conducted at Belmont Park.)
Like much of history, the early days of the founding of Saratoga are somewhat foggy. John "Old Smoke" Morrissey, a former bare-knuckles boxing champion, bouncer, gambler and U.S. congressman, held a four-day experimental meeting at Horse Haven in Saratoga Springs in 1863. Morrissey was described as a "bully politician, head of a New York City gang called the Dead Rabbits, which -- with clubs and fists -- electioneered for Tammany Hall."
The meeting was so successful that it was decided to build a racetrack across the street from Horse Haven. Official history records that William R. Travers and John Hunter were the masterminds behind the building of Saratoga Race Course in 1864.
It is generally agreed that Morrissey, with his string of gambling houses, put up the money to build Saratoga, but discreetly withheld his name from all official documents. Travers and Hunter were men of prestige and position, and that was very important to getting racing accepted at the time.
The inaugural meeting at Saratoga was short and sweet. The Travers Stakes was the highlight of the meeting, being named, of course, for one of the track's founders and its first president. That Travers and Hunter co-owned the first winner, a colt named Kentucky, of the race named for Travers is not as unusual as it might first seem. In the 1800s, the men who built racetracks were often the ones who bred and owned many of the best horses at these meetings. They built tracks to showcase their horses more than to make money.
Travers was a prominent businessman in New York City most of his life and for many years bred and owned some of the period's better horses. In later years, he broke up his partnership with Hunter and no longer was involved in breeding and owning horses. His obituary in the April 2, 1887 edition of The Thoroughbred Record noted, however, that he "ceased to race, but always took an active part and great interest in turf events." Travers was 68 when he died.
© 1997,2000 Ron Hale