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Saratoga in 1903
New York Tracks - A Short History

By: Ron Hale

The first American racecourse was laid out on Long Island in 1665. For the next two centuries, tracks popped up and disappeared in New York and the surrounding areas. Most tracks were run by the rich and famous and used as places to showcase their horses.

It wasn't until the time of the Civil War that entrepreneurs entered the sport and began treating it as a business -- organizing and promoting betting on racing by the general public.

Two men, John Hunter and W. R. Travers (and some say, also the ex-prizefighter, John Morrissey) conceived the idea of a racetrack at the popular summer health resort in Saratoga Springs. The inaugural meeting was conducted in 1864, and America's oldest stakes race, the Travers (named for W. R.) was born.

Spurred by the success of Saratoga, Leonard Jerome bought organized racing to the metropolitan New York City area. He opened Jerome Park in 1866 on the old Bathgate Estate, near Fordham. The track lasted until 1887, when the city needed the property for a reservoir. The Belmont Stakes had its beginnings at Jerome Park. Jerome named the race for his good friend, August Belmont, a man who helped finance the new track.

Sheepshead Bay turn of the century In June 1879, William Engeman built a racetrack near the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island. The track was called Brighton Beach. It became an instant success and Leonard Jerome, tired of fighting with his board of directors at his Jerome Park, formed the Coney Island Jockey Club to compete with Brighton Beach. He conducted his first two meetings at the fairgrounds in nearby Prospect Park (Brooklyn) while his new race course was being built at Coney Island. The new course, called Sheepshead Bay, opened in 1884. The Suburban Handicap was the inaugural event. Sheepshead Bay raced from 1884 until 1910.

The Dwyer Bros., the butchers-turned-successful horse owners, then formed the Brooklyn Jockey Club and rebuilt the racetrack at the Prospect Park fairgrounds. They called their new track Gravesend. Among the major stakes born at Gravesend were the Brooklyn Handicap, Brooklyn Derby (now called the Dwyer Stakes), Gazelle, Tremont and Great American. Gravesend raced from 1885 to 1910.

When Jerome Park was torn down for the reservoir, Leonard Jerome enlisted the support of John A. Morris to build a new track. Morris Park was opened in Westchester County in 1889. The Metropolitan Handicap was born here. Morris Park gave way to Belmont Park in 1905. (Some racing was actually conducted at Morris Park until 1907.)

In 1894, the Queens County Jockey Club opened Aqueduct Race Track in a section of Queens known as Ozone Park. A rich tugboat skipper endowed the track with the money to sponsor a big handicap race. His name was William Carter--and thus the Carter Handicap was born.

Belmont in 1912 In the early 1900s, August Belmont II and William Collins Whitney joined other business partners to build the most lavish track ever built in America. The result was the one-and-one-half mile oval, Belmont Park, which opened its doors on May 4, 1905. Many of the major stakes from Jerome and Morris Parks were transferred to Belmont. The *great* Sysonby and Race King deadheated on opening day in the Metropolitan Handicap. The Belmont Stakes was moved to Belmont Park, where it remains today. (It was run at Aqueduct from 1963-1967.)

Not far from Aqueduct and Belmont Park, the "people's racetrack" was opened by the Metropolitan Jockey Club near the Jamaica train station. Jamaica opened in 1909 and remained probably New York's most popular track. It closed its doors forever following the 1959 season.

For more than two years, from 1910-1913, racing was banished from New York by zealous legislators and Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, who pushed through legislation that outlawed all forms of wagering on horse racing.

When racing returned to New York, only Jamaica, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga answered the starter's bell.

Belmont 1950 In the mid-1950s, legislators in New York joined with racing officials in determining that something needed to be done to maintain New York's historic place at the zenith of Thoroughbred racing. Their answer was one association conducting all racing on a non-profit basis. Thus, the Greater New York Association (GNYA) was formed. It later changed its name to the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

One by one, shareholders of the four tracks racing in New York sold out to the GNYA. Saratoga accepted $102 per share; Jamaica accepted $325 a share; Belmont accepted $91 per share; and finally Aqueduct accepted $183 per share on September 7, 1955. The GNYA was officially in business.

Aqueduct The first step was to rebuild Aqueduct on its present site into a mega-track. When the $33-million track reopened in the fall of 1959 for a 66-day meeting, all records were broken. The track was referred to as New Aqueduct to distinguish it from the same track at the same location that had opened in 1894. That track was now referred to as "Old Aqueduct."

With the opening of "new" Aqueduct, Jamaica was torn down.

In 1963, Belmont Park was razed for a new grandstand. It reopened in 1968, but no one apparently saw the need to refer to "old" Belmont or "new" Belmont.

© 1997, Ron Hale

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