“Brooklyn Once Had Big-Time Racing, Too.”


So reads a New York Times headline in July of 1963, as the author recalled the first running of the Brooklyn Handicap, at Gravesend Race Track in 1887.

The article tells us that, “There’s little doubt that the Brooklyn Handicap captivated the interest of many. In the early 1900’s, there wasn’t a self-respecting saloon in the borough without prints on the walls of Dry Monopole, Blue Wing and Hidalgo,” the top three finishers in that 1887 race. I can testify that that is no longer the case; in fact, in none of the self-respecting saloons in the borough that I have patronized have I ever seen a photo of a horse race, much less one of any of these three.

Gravesend Race Track was supervised by the Brooklyn Jockey Club, under the leadership of Mike and Phil Dwyer, brothers who went on to play significant roles in both New Jersey and New York racing, and for whom the Dwyer is named. While I was aware of the Dwyers’ significance in New York racing history, I did not know that that in the 1870’s, they owned a butcher shop at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street—about ten blocks from where I currently reside (New York Times).

In May of 1887, the Brooklyn Handicap was run for the first time, at a distance of a mile and an eighth; Dry Monopole, the winner, set a new record for the distance. A crowd estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 turned out for the race, no small accomplishment given that no betting could take place on track, pending a decision by Governor David Hill on the Pool Ives bill, under which pool betting was operated in New York State, and which in 1894 had been found to be unconstitutional. The end of the Pool Ives bill would have effectively ended betting in New York State, and the issue apparently dragged on through various courts for years (New York Times). Unresolved in May of 1887, it prevented spectators at Gravesend from wagering on the Brooklyn at the track:

The officers of the Brooklyn Club decided to allow no betting on   the grounds until the Ives Pool bill has been acted upon by the Governor. Bookmakers were at the track, but acquiesced good naturedly in the decision, and the speculatively inclined was not permitted to stake his money unless he did it with a friend, for the bookmakers refused to take his money even by the shady
methods they sometimes adopt to evade the law. So in this respect the meeting was without a parallel in the history of racing hereabout. (New York Times)

Unsurprisingly, it did not, however, prevent people from making money off the races, specifically Dry Monopole’s owners:

[Dry Monopole] is a great horse, and has by yesterday’s performance not only landed a rich stake…but made Mr. Emery and his partners in the ownership of the colt some $50,000 richer in cash acquired from bets made early in the season. Last Winter they backed him heavily at odds of from seventy-five to fifty to one against him. Yesterday the betting in town at the bookmakers was eight to one against him.

And who says that there’s no money to be made in futures pools?

Five races were run on this May day, but six had been carded. Our anonymous author blames the starters (some things never change) for the shortened day:

[Spectators] would have seen another race but for the tedious delays at the post before each race, starter Sheridan being unable to get the fields of horses away in anything like quick time. Even when he did send them the starts were in no wise remarkable ones, but on the contrary rather poor, and he did not succeed in sending the horses for the big event until 6:30 o’clock.

Just about the time the Belmont Stakes will go off this Saturday…but we can’t blame the starters for this one.

With the Brooklyn Handicap itself our author found no fault; he called the race “one of the greatest ever seen on any track,” and abandons any pretense of reportorial objectivity as he describes it:

Intensely exciting it was, and every one on the grand stand was on his or her feet, crying aloud in the excitement the name of his or her particular favorite of [Dry Monopole, Hidalgo, and Blue Wing]. Whips worked vigorously, dust flew thickly, hoofs rattled merrily on the track, making the liveliest kind of a tattoo. The horses seemed to have wings, and no camera was quick enough to catch them as they went up to the judges’ stand like the whirlwind.

One of three races in the Handicap Triple Crown, the Brooklyn has lost something of its luster in recent years, despite being won by a number of notable horses in its long history: Running Stag, Lemon Drop Kid, Devil His Due, Fit to Fight (the last winner of the Handicap Triple Crown), Forego (three consecutive years, 1974 – 76), Buckpasser, Kelso, Tom Fool, Triple Crown winner Assault, Stymie, Seabiscuit, Exterminator.

The race was most recently run last September, just a few days after this blog was launched, and perhaps the new Breeders’ Cup Dirt Marathon will help to restore the race to its former grandness. When the Brooklyn was first run, Brooklyn was still an independent city, and it is one of the oldest races on the New York racing calendar. There’s something not quite fair about this Brooklyn denizen and race fan having to work instead of going to the track…but at least NYRA is offering us the opportunity to bet a Brooklyn/Belmont double.

This race is all about sentimentality for me: it’s where I live, and Evening Attire is in it. I don’t know if he’s got a shot here, but an Evening Attire win in the Brooklyn Handicap would be a pretty terrific racing moment. As the race goes off, I’ll be on my way uptown, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, en route to a Belmont event…but my thoughts will be twenty miles away at Belmont Park, where a race will go off that, for the first twenty-three years of its life, was run in the place that I call home.

Sources:

“Brooklyn Once Had Big-Time Horse Racing, Too.” The New York Times. 21 July 1963. Nytimes.com. 5 June 2008.

“Dry Monopole’s Victory.” The New York Times. 15 May 1887. Nytimes.com. 5 June 2008.

“The Ives Pool Bill Illegal.” The New York Times. 8 May 1894. Nytimes.com. 5 June 2008.

3 thoughts on ““Brooklyn Once Had Big-Time Racing, Too.”

  1. This was great…thanks. When researching the 1905 and 1908 Belmont Stakes I found that the Brooklyn was run the day after the Belmont during this era. In fact, when comparing how the races were covered by the press, it seemed that the Brooklyn was more important to the scribes (and presumably the fans) than the Belmont. Boy, have times changed. Go Evening Attire!

  2. I second the previous comment. Love the history lesson! I live in Sheepshead Bay; there’s virtually no trace of the Gravesend or SB tracks remaining.

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