Spectators at Jerome Park, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Belmont offers four graded stakes this racing weekend, three today and one tomorrow. Two-year-old fillies and colts compete on the dirt in the Frizette and Champagne, respectively, both Grade I’s; three year olds go over the grass in the Grade II Jamaica; and tomorrow, three-year-olds run in the Grade II Jerome Handicap.
The Jerome was first run 142 years ago this week, at Jerome Park in the Bronx; Mr. Leonard Jerome must have been mighty chuffed, given that he witnessed both the opening of a new racetrack and the running of a race named after him.
According to Edward Hotaling, Jerome Park opened on September 25, 1866. The great Kentucky won the Inaugural Stakes, so impressing Jerome that he purchased the horse for $40,000, then the most money ever paid for a horse (“Leonard W. Jerome Dead“).
Several years earlier, Jerome, along with William Travers and John Morrissey, had helped to create the Saratoga Racing Association and the Saratoga Race Course. Called in his obituary “one of the boldest, coolest, and most successful manipulators in Wall Street,” he brought to his racing endeavors the same brashness that he brought to his financial work. As Hotaling notes, “He had to have his track. In fact, he had to have several tracks, and he started by triumphantly founding the American Jockey Club in Manhattan to run the first one.”
This first track was Jerome Park, built in what was then Westchester County but which is now the Bronx, and was the sort of multi-use entertainment complex that might make current track executives salivate:
This track, Francis Morris’s farm to the southeast at Throgs Neck, and John Hunter’s spread a few miles north of that at Pelham, formed a triangle of magnificent horse country in today’s east Bronx. Its jewel, Jerome Park, boasted not only racing but dining and dancing, skating and sleighing, trap shooting and the all-but-lost art of that century, coaching.
Jerome went on to organize the Coney Island Jockey Club and its Sheepshead Bay track, and in 1889 he opened Morris Park in Westchester County. He was the first president of the New-York Jockey Club. He was also the grandfather of Winston Churchill; as a child, his daughter Jennie, named for Jerome’s paramour Jenny Lind, was taken, along with her two sisters, to Europe to live shortly after the opening of Jerome Park, apparently in protest of Jerome’s frequent extra-curricular activities (Hotaling).
The first running of the Jerome happened on the third day of the first Jerome Park meet, reportedly a smashing success:
It must be a source of intense gratification to the gentlemen composing the
American Jockey Club to witness the brilliant success which has attended their
inaugatory meeting so far, and the heart, cordial manner in which the public of
New York have seconded them in their noble enterprise to elevate and place upon
a permanent basis the sports of the turf. (“The Fordham Meeting”)
Four horses went to the post, one of them a maiden second-time starter named Watson, by Lexington. He had been third in the Jersey Derby, “yet the high private reputation he had for speed made him a great favorite.” The Jerome was a mile heat race for three-year-olds, and Watson took the first two heats, in times of 1:48 ¾ and 1:48 flat. Having won the first heat by two lengths, Watson easily dispatched his rivals in the second:
…with the greatest of ease he shook them off, and although he gave it a
semblance of a race, he quitted them when he liked, and won, “hands down,” in
1:48, going around the ‘course again at the top of his speed, to give his owner
an opportunity of timing him for a mile and three-quarters. (“The Fordham
It does not appear that Jerome ever won his eponymous race, which, given his personality, must have frustrated him. Nonetheless, it’s an understatement to say that his place in racing history is secure; racing in New York wouldn’t exist without his contributions. He died in England and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
One might consider it a little vainglorious that he had a race named after him during his lifetime, and that it was run at a park bearing his name, but given that we’re still running it more than a century and a half later, who can really argue? The race has been won by such luminaries at Ogygian, Fusaichi Pegasus, Crème Fraiche, Kelso, and Bold Ruler; tomorrow, Belmont winner Da’ Tara hopes to add a little more black type to his résumé. In race littered with one-time Derby contenders, he takes on Visionaire, Cool Coal Man, and Tale of Ekati.
If you head out to Belmont tomorrow afternoon, you’ll see something far removed from that October scene at Jerome Park in 1866—no ice skating or trap shooting, that’s for sure—but each year that such storied races as the Jerome are run gives them greater significance in racing’s history. It’s just too bad that unlike in 1866, there won’t be a reporter to cover and comment on the day in the detail that those nineteenth century readers could expect.