A little Brooklyn racing history

Today’s feature race at Belmont is the Grade II Sheepshead Bay Handicap, run on the turf at a mile and three-eighths for fillies and mares, three and up. A neighborhood in Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay was home to a racetrack from 1884 – 1910. In 1911, horse racing was declared illegal in New York State, and the track closed, never to reopen. During its relatively short existence, though, it was no small player in New York racing history.

The Sheepshead Bay track was founded by the usual suspects in New York racing: Jerome, Travers, Belmont et al. The Coney Island Jockey Club was formed in 1880, and races were held seasonally at Prospect Park until the new track was complete in 1894. Born at Sheepshead Bay were both the Suburban (a funny name for a track in Brooklyn, it comes from the English race the City and Suburban) and the Futurity.

In his comprehensive history of racing in New York, They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Edward Hotaling writes, “…on June 25, 1890, Sheepshead Bay staged the most electrifying contest of [the Gay Nineties]. J.B. Haggin’s Salvator, one of the giants of the age, met millionaire D.T. Pulsifer’s Tenny, who somehow had conquered him four times in six meetings.” [Note: Salvator’s page on the National Museum of Racing website notes that it was Salvator who beat Tenny four times.]

Salvator and Tenny were the Alydar and Affirmed, the Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, of the late 1890’s. Following Tenny’s defeat to Salvator in the June 17th Suburban at Sheepshead Bay, Tenny’s owners proposed a match race a week later on the same course. The day after the race, the New York Times called the race “probably the greatest in the history of thoroughbred racing.”

The June 26th, 1890 article from which that quotation comes is notable for the racing history it contains, but also for its voice, its details. The unnamed author conveys his knowledge of and affection for racing; the piece is as much a feature as it is a piece of reporting:

The Coney Island Jockey Club covered itself with glory when it brought about the
match between the two best horses in this country. At least 15,000 people,
probably more, were at the beautiful track to see the contest. The track was
‘lightning fast,’ as trainers call a particularly good track…The enthusiasm
shown during the running of the race was unequaled at any racing event
during the past decade. Men and women alike seemed crazy, and hugged one
another, shouted themselves hoarse, threw hats, umbrellas, parasols, and
handkerchiefs into the air and altogether acted as if they had lost
possession of their senses.

In the crowd was a quiet, gray-whiskered man, who made little noise, but who did a heap of ‘rooting’ for Salvator. It was James E. Kelly, the veteran of the betting ring, who stood to win $10,000 in case of Salvator’s victory. He watched every motion of the handsome chestnut son of Prince Charlie, and when the race was ended he put $10,000 in his inside pocket, and was thoroughly glad that such things as match races exist. (New York Times)

Our reporter notes that Tenny had a “sulking disposition,” and that this behavior likely caused his defeat, as it permitted Salvator to get a lead around the first turn. On the backstretch, Salvator was four lengths in front on his way to a track record, but Tenny challenged him in the stretch:

…when the head of the home stretch was reached [jockey Snapper Garrison] had
Tenny within three lengths of the flying Salvator. Then came a battle royal
for a quarter of a mile, the vast crowd going almost crazy while it was
being fought out. Garrison rode Tenny like a very demon, but [jockey Isaac]
Murphy and Salvator would not be caught….Salvator managed to get first past
the judges, beating Tenny by a head only, and an infinitesimal part of a
second in that remarkable time—2:05. (New York Times)

Hotaling quotes from the newspaper Spirit of the Times: “The way Tenny came up with his flying rival in the last 100 yards was a miracle, perfectly stupendous.” And he notes that the race inspired a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “We are under the string now—the great race is done—/And Salvator, Salvator, Salvator won!”

I found these images of the track at Arrt’s Arrchives:

And this one of the finish line at the website of the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga:

On the website Sheepshead Bay History, author Ira Leitner imagines wandering around Brooklyn, in the very paths on which horses ran during the early part of the last century. Though gone for good in 1910, Sheepshead Bay Racetrack lives on both in the various websites devoted to Brooklyn and racing history, and in the name of its eponymous Handicap, renewed today for the 55th time. On his blog Paul Moran calls today’s race “uninspired and paceless,” and I will leave the race analysis and handicapping to him. I’m going to focus, instead, on what the Sheepshead Bay evokes, and what it recalls. And who knows? Maybe late this afternoon two fillies will charge to the wire, noses apart, and bring the apron crowd to life as Tenny and Salvator did, not far away in Sheepshead Bay, nearly 120 years ago.

And while we’re celebrating and being inspired by Brooklyn history, a very happy 125th birthday to the Brooklyn Bridge, whose birthday fireworks I watched from my roof a couple of nights ago. It is the totem of this blog, and I am lucky enough to enjoy its magnificence daily:

Photo credit to Travisdub, via Brooklyn Heights Blog


Huneke, Arthur John. “Coney Island Jockey Club at Sheepshead Bay Race Track.” Arrt’s Arrchives. 23 May 2008. <http://arrts-arrchives.com/mbbr9.html>

Hale, Ron. “Salvator: 1886 – 1909.” About.com: Horse Racing. 1998. 24 May 2008 <http://horseracing.about.com/library/blsalvator.htm>

Hotaling, Ed. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Leitner, Ira. “Sheepshead Bay Race Track.” Sheepshead Bay History. 2003. 24 May 2008. <http://sheepsheadbayhistory.org/history/sheepsheadbay-chapter5.html>

“Salvator.” National Museum of Racing, Saratoga Springs, New York. 24 May 2008. <http://www.racingmuseum.org/hall/horse.asp?ID=130>

“Salvator Defeats Tenny.” The New York Times. 26 June 1890. Nytimes.com. 23 May 2008. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9E01E7DF133BE533A25755C2A9609C94619ED7CF>

9 thoughts on “A little Brooklyn racing history

  1. Teresa, you have “been discovered”!!! I just went on “the Rail” and where did it send me? Why to brooklynbackstretch, of course. These old pictures are great. Keep up the great work. Lynne Veitch

  2. Great blog. Sheephead Bay was notable in that it had a TURF course which can be seen in some of the pictures. The original photo of the finish of the Salvator/Tenny match shows it as well.

  3. You’re inspiring me to head straight to Lyrical Ballad to buy up books on racing around the turn of the century.I’m intrigued by what American racing went through 100 years ago and wonder whether horse racing in the US is actually doomed or at best doomed to an existance of boom and bust. Is 2008 the new 1908? Is there something in American society, that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Western world, that time and time again seeks to destroy racing. Perhaps the Rasmussen poll was flawed-but if you believe the Rasmussen poll and think that around 80 million Americans either want the sport banned or aren’t sure.A total root and branch investigation at every level of the sport is needed. Look at absolutely everything. Not just at medication rules and the whip law. Yes the British rules should be implemented-but they too are flawed-they can be improved on to leave y’all with the best use of the whip rules in the world.Personally i’d bring back on-course bookmakers (have a similar system to Australia rather then the UK or Irelend)-this would keep track entrance fees low but act as a magnate for bettors to pick the track over the OTB or their couch. From what i’ve read this years Derby marked the 100th Birthday for the tote machines that Matt Winn introduced at Churchill. Those that study the history of the time possibly see this as the moment when the sport- which saw nearly 300 tracks close in less than 20 years-was saved from extinction in the US. And my biggest beef. Dramatically curtail the influence that politicians have in the sport.

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