The Comely, and racing then and now

Today’s feature at Aqueduct is the 59th running of the Grade II Comely, run at a mile for three-year-old fillies. The race is named for the filly who at two beat older horses in the inaugural Fall Highweight Handicap at Belmont Park in 1914. She was owned by James Butler, owner of the Empire City Racecourse (not the current racino in Yonkers, but clearly its predecessor), and she compiled a record 7 – 8 – 3 from twenty-two starts.

Comely’s two-year-old campaign was apparently something of an erratic affair, creating numbers of both fans and detractors:

Comely’s easy victory in the Autumn High-weight Handicap at the Belmont Park track yesterday afternoon went far toward proving the contention of the most competent critics among owners and trainers that the defeats of this sturdy filly in several of her stake engagements have been due to racing accidents and slovenly riding rather than to any fault of her racing qualities. Early in the season she was pronounced by these same critics to be one of the best thoroughbreds of her sex ever foaled, and they have ever since found excuse for her defeats in the fact that she had been badly ridden or a victim of
racing interferences that had destroyed her chances in races. (“Comely”)

It’s unthinkable that a contemporary two-year-old filly would do what Comely did in September of 1914: race in a handicap, race against older horses, race against colts…and give sixteen pounds—sixteen pounds!—to them. Knowing nothing about her other races but given what we learn about the running of Highweight, one must wonder about Comely’s being the “victim” of racing interferences:

[Comely and Harry Payne Whitney’s three-year-old Forum] had the race between them from the start, getting away together in the centre of the track and running alongside one another to the end. In the fourth and fifth furlongs of the run there was considerable bumping against one another as they ran stride for stride, but in the final furlong the filly was so much the better of the pair that she shook off the Whitney colt and actually romped past the judges with only a hand ride a length and a half in front of Forum…she showed no signs of distress, and could apparently have run at least a furlong, and perhaps a quarter of a mile further, had it been necessary. (“Comely”)

Comely raced earlier that year on what seems to have been quite a noteworthy day at Aqueduct. June 25th, 1914 featured Comely being defeated as an even-money favorite; a walkover; and a police raid on the bookies operating at Aqueduct.

In the Hudson Stakes at five furlongs for two-year-olds, Comely and High Noon (both owned by Butler) were virtual co-favorites. Comely, who earlier in the year had won two stakes at Belmont, finished fourth, and it is reported that she was “destroyed by the straggling start, in which [she] was left standing flat-footed.” In an example of one of those bad trips alluded to in the September article, “Comely caught her field at the end of three furlongs, and twice made an effort to get up to the flying Sea Shell and The Masquerader, but each time she was shut off, her stable companion being at fault in one of these efforts” (“Sea Shell”).

In much the same way that I can’t imagine a turf writer describing a jockey’s ride as “slovenly,” I doubt we’ll ever see this sort of race summary: “There were too many horses of worthless caliber in the way to make the stake a true run race in the opinion of the horsemen who watched the running very critically from the far upper end of the stand” (“Sea Shell”).

The Hudson was run as the fourth race on the card, fortunately, perhaps, for those who collected on Sea Shell’s 6 – 1 win, as shortly thereafter the police descended upon Aqueduct in a gambling raid. I don’t know enough about gambling laws to understand how bets were legally taken in 1914 (and that dratted full-time job does get in the way of researching arcane New York State law), but I feel slightly comforted knowing that the authorities at the time were wrestling with their own sort of confusion. The headline reads, “Police Arrest Eleven at Aqueduct Despite Opinions of District Attorneys.”

[The police] were laying the foundation for suits to decide the whole question of betting which has been going on at the tracks under theories promulgated by the District Attorneys of Nassau and Queens that oral betting was permissible so long as there was no record of the wager.
(Incredulous emphasis obviously mine.)

[Said Lieutenant McDonald] “We have been on the track of the men we have arrested for ten days, at Belmont Park and at Aqueduct; have proofs of the registering of wagers, the passing of money, and of outright violations of the law that has been posted at all the tracks. We have also got proof against the owners of the tracks that the speculation has been conducted with their
knowledge. They are the ones we are after. (“Betting Raid”)

And NYRA thought it had problems!

Incidentally there was gossip, which could not be confirmed, that the police had evidence that the Racing Association had distributed passes for the exclusive use of men known to be bookmakers, or “layers,” as they are now called….This charge the managers of the track denied, asserting, on the contrary, that they had done everything they could to keep to the spirit as well as the letter of the law and had operated in connection with the Sheriff of Queens to keep known bookmakers off the grounds. (“Betting Raid”)

Finally, the article includes an interesting footnote regarding the cost of entertainment: “Three of the men arrested are said to have been operators in the ‘dollar’ field at Belmont Park. With the abolition of the low-priced field at Aqueduct, these men went into the grand stand inclosure (sic), where the price of admission is $3…” (“Betting Raid”).

Exactly the cost today of getting into Saratoga. At Belmont, it’s $2, and at Aqueduct, $1.

Price aside, those at Aqueduct today can reasonably expect that they will see little of what was going on in 1914: no two-year-old fillies against older colts; no walkovers; no police raids (though I suppose you never know). They can hope that they’ll see fillies with promising futures, as this race has produced a few of them: Ruffian, Mom’s Command, Ta-Wee; and more recently Society Selection (one of my favorite mares ever), Miraculous Miss, and Boca Grande.

I loved Sherine last summer and fall but she’s not done well in stakes company; if I were at the track, I’d probably use her in an exacta with Elusive Lady and Love Co.

Update: Love Co is scratched, so while I like Lady Chace, I’ll go for value with Ready for Fortune.
Sources cited:

Betting Law Test in a Race Track Raid.” New York Times. 26 June 1914. 12 April 2008.

Comely Easy Victor in Autumn Handicap.” New York Times. 19 September 1914. 12 April 2008.

Sea Shell Best in Driving Finish.” New York Times. 26 June 1914. 12 April 2008.

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