In January of 1913, as New York waited to see whether racing would return after a 29-month absence due to anti-gambling laws, the sport lost one of its most successful human competitors when James R. Keene died in New York City on January 3, 2013.
Born in Ireland in 1838, Keene moved with his family to the United States in 1852, settling at first in California, moving east to New York as an adult. He worked a variety of jobs, but he made his name in the stock market, earning and losing several fortunes as an aggressive speculator.
He was unabashed, maybe even ruthless, in his pursuit of financial gain; Maryjean Wall called him “one of the most feared stock-market manipulators of all time.” In a New York Times account of his life, he likened himself to a dog driven to continue chasing rabbits, no matter how many he has chased or caught. “’To the last gasp of his breath that dog will chase his rabbit,’” he is quoted as saying. “’When you tell me why that dog wants another rabbit, I will tell you why I want more money’” (“James R Keene Left…”).
His racing endeavors began in 1878, when he bought a horse called Spendthrift. In Legacies of the Turf, (Vol. 1), racing historian Edward L. Bowen wrote that the horse was “pulled” in the 1878 Withers in order to allow his stablemate Sparling to win. Among Spendthrift’s victories that year were the Belmont and the Jerome; he was second in the Travers and, according to Pedigree Query, champion two-year-old in 1878 and champion three-year-old the following year.
Keene didn’t make his mark only in racing: he was a breeder, too, purchasing Castleton Stud in Kentucky, standing Spendthrift there, where he was, reportedly, the U.S. leading sire in 1902 and 1908. From 1907 to 1913, Keene bred five consecutive winners of the Futurity: Colin, Maskette, Sweep, Novelty, and Pennant.
While Keene may be best known for owning and racing the undefeated Colin and the one-loss Sysonby (third in the 1904 Futurity, he beaten by the fillies Artful and Tradition—a groom later admitted to drugging Sysonby), it was Domino that was his favorite; he reportedly had inscribed on the horse’s grave in Kentucky, “One of the best friends I ever had and the fleetest horse ever foaled is dead” (J.R. Keene Dies…”).
Keene supposedly visited his horses every Sunday, even when he was ill and infirm (“Regarded Colin…”), and in a story reported in several contemporary papers, he absconded from a Madison Square Garden horse show with a group of friends to stand before the statue of Sysonby in the Museum of Natural History. There, “Mr. Keene ran his hand lovingly over Sysonby’s head, and at last some one remarked, ‘A perfect horse, Mr. Keene’” (“James R. Keene Left $15,000,000”).
Wrote the Daily Racing Form in a tribute following his death,
Mr. Keene’s horses were the staff of his life—the bread and wine of his existence. In them he found a surcease from business cares and a tonic for the ills of the flesh. With him a good horse was not a plaything or a toy to while away an idle hour, but something that gave him keen enjoyment and satisfaction for all time.
He was one of the founding members of the Jockey Club and the Sheepshead Bay race track, and he adamantly opposed the restrictions on gambling put forth by New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, restrictions that led to the cessation of racing in the state in 1910.
Unwell for many years, he died following surgery for a stomach ailment at Miss Alston’s House for Private Patients on West 61st Street in New York City. His funeral took place at Grace Church, which still stands at Broadway and 10th Street in Greenwich Village. The Times noted that in death, Keene “received flowers from admirers of his horses.”
While much of the coverage of Keene’s death was nearly reverential, a sly reporter sassily slipped the following into his obituary:
Mr. Keene’s only daughter, Jessica Keene Taylor, will undoubtedly be his chief heir. She built an elaborate mansion at Cedarhurst several years ago, and Mr. Taylor called in Mrs. Mazie Cowles to help decorate it. The result was an auction sale in which Mrs. Taylor disposed of all the furnishings purchased by Mrs. Cowles, and afterward obtained a divorce, the divorce being followed very shortly by the marriage of Mr. Taylor and Mrs. Cowles.
Mrs. Taylor still retains the mansion with furnishings of her own selection… (“James R. Keene Left…”)
Keene was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and though he made enemies (among them Jay Gould) in the business world, he also garnered respect and admiration, as seen in this telegraph sent from a competitor at the news of his death, and published in the Times.
Keene slayed ‘em fast and furious, with the blue sky for a limit, and whether he dealt from the top bottom, or middle, his fingers never discarded with his heart. His life was a symphony of gamble, and it was a greater pleasure to lose to him than to win from a bungler. We often wrangled, but my admiration for his ability was excelled only by my wonder at his nerve.
His Wall Street legacy was indeed prodigious, but it was equaled, if not surpassed, by his influence in United States racing and breeding. Bowen quotes an interview Keene gave to the New York Herald, in which the horseman offered this explanation for his love of good race horses.
It is the gratification of possessing something that you know is a little better than that possessed by anybody else. Beyond that, it is a matter of intense personal pride. It is not the sum the horse may earn; it is not the possibility that he may be employed for speculation that makes him desirable, because racing for gaming is not sport. It is the fact that he is a wonderful work of nature, a fine, high-spirited, perhaps gentle and intelligent, animal that is a little superior to all others of his time, and whose courage is tested by races he runs and the results that follow.
Throughout 2013, Brooklyn Backstretch will re-visit the racing events of 1913, the year that racing returned to New York after a nearly three-year absence.
Belmont Park inaugural program, Internet Archive.
Bowen, Edward L. Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Vol. I). Eclipse Press, 2003.
Brown Brothers, photograph of James R. Keene. New York Public Library Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.
Genaro, Teresa. “Running of Saratoga Special celebrates 100-year anniversary of underdog triumph Novelty…” The Saratogian, August 16, 2010.
“James R. Keene.” New York Times, January 5, 1913.
“J.R. Keene Dies After Operation.” New York Times, January 3, 1913.
“Famous Turfman Is Dead.” Daily Racing Form, January 4, 1913. [Offers a terrific, detailed overview of Keene’s racing and breeding successes.]
“Regarded Colin As Greatest Of All.” Daily Racing Form, January 8, 1913.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
Wall, Maryjean. How Kentucky Became Southern. University of Kentucky Press, 2010.