A snapshot of 1940

Today’s feature at Belmont is the Grade II New York Handicap, currently run at a mile and a quarter on the turf, for fillies and mares, three years old and up. It has not been ever thus; first run in 1940, the race was originally open to both sexes and was run on the dirt, and like most New York stakes races, it’s been run at a variety of distances and on multiple tracks. Its first running was at two and a quarter miles. In the nineteenth century, a race called the New-York Handicap was run at Sheepshead Bay, but a quick Saturday morning search didn’t turn up any connections between the New-York and the New York Handicaps. Racing historians, please feel free to chime in.

In 1940, Alfred G. Vanderbilt was president of the Westchester Racing Association, which then oversaw the Belmont meet, and it was he who instituted the New York Handicap, to be run on closing day of the fall meet. The announcement of the race occasioned this praise from John Kieran in the New York Times on July 26th:

…the cheering in this corner is for the respectable distance over which the race
is to be run and the further stipulation that this will be a race for “3-year-olds and upward.”

Now, that’s something like it and a casual visitor at a track may have something to cheer for if this keeps up or goes any farther.

It’s a commonplace in the current racing environment that we bemoan the lack of older horses on the track; we attribute the decline in racing interest to horses’ being retired early and fans’ inability to get attached to horses because they disappear so quickly. The good old days are often cited, when colts were raced until they were at least old enough to become horses, and when such horses captured the public’s imagination.

Our dissatisfaction is apparently not limited to our era; in a substantial piece, Kieran complains in 1940 about many of the same things that we do today, making a clear distinction between gamblers and potential racing fans. His piece is targeted to the latter:

…The horse that makes money [for gamblers] is a noble animal. The horse that
loses money for them is a beast and no mistake.

But this observer, on casual visits to the turf, views the horses in a slightly different light. The regret is that so many of them come and go so quickly that there is no time to make friends of them.

Kieran describes himself as an “inexpert onlooker,” “knowing little or nothing about weights, track conditions, handicaps, past performances, and breeding lines,” but I wonder whether he is being rather falsely immodest; he was one of the Times’ “Sports of the Times” columnists and is a member of the National Sports Writers and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. According to his brief biography there, Kieran “wrote the first signed daily column ever published in The New York Times,” and from 1927 to 1943 he wrote about sports seven days a week. So, despite his assertions to the contrary, I suspect that he knew a little about horse racing. I admit that while digging around for information about the New York Handicap, I got seriously side-tracked by research into Kieran and had to drag myself back to the topic at hand. Why is Kieran not known as well as Red Smith? A topic for another day.

So Kieran brings some authority to his commentary about racing, weaving in discussions of college football coaches, tennis players, and boxers, all supporting his point that sports retain their popularity when they offer to the public recognizable faces that stick around for a while. He also comes down firmly on the side of the casual fan, which might dismay those who believe that it’s the serious bettor who merits more consideration than he currently gets:

A man doesn’t have to have a dime, ten cents, the tenth part of a dollar riding
on the nose of any such horse to feel a thrill in watching the prancing steed
come out on the track. It’s an acquaintance, an admired friend, a hero of the
turf, a horse with a story and a record of accomplishments.

Kieran does not, though, blame the owners for the disappearance of horses from the track; rather, he applauds Vanderbilt for creating and carding the New York Handicap and urges track officials to follow Vanderbilt’s lead:

Track owners run seven or more races a day for the regulars whose heart-throbs
are best registered by the mutuel machines. The track officials should run more
races for the non-regulars or casual visitors, who are more interested in racing
as a sport than as an outdoor gambling device on a magnificent scale…There could
be more of these “and upward” events at respectable distances and reasonable

I don’t know enough about racing history to know when the “and up” condition became common; it surprises me that Kieran indicates that it is something of a rarity in 1940. It’s certainly common enough now, so perhaps Mr. Kieran would be pleased to know that the thing for which he called in 1940 has come to pass. What he might not have foreseen is that so few owners of top-quality horses are willing to stick around long enough to see their horses run in them.

I recognize that sentimental views of the sport such as Kieran puts forth might carry little weight (pun intended) today, when bettors feel ignored and disparaged; when equine health concerns are paramount; and when our sport is dying in a way that Kieran might have found hard to believe. It is racing’s challenge, I think, to figure out a way to attract both bettors and fans; part of Saratoga’s charm is that families find going to the track a great way to spend a day, and even yesterday at twilight racing, there were lots of little kids running around, and lots of young people hanging out. Racing’s got to find, and keep, both sports fans and gamblers interested in racing.

Racing seems to have heeded Kieran’s 1940 call; who are today’s visionaries who might put forth and execute the ideas that will put racing back in the public’s imagination, and not because another horse has died?

Kieran, John. “Sports of the Times; A Chance to Know the Horses.” Nytimes.com. 26 July 1940. 21 June 2008.

2 thoughts on “A snapshot of 1940

  1. Hey Teresa – just saw that Scrappy T came in 5th in the 7th today at Colonial Downs. We should’ve planned to go to the track today for the Colonial Turf Cup 😦

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