The Grand Re-Opening of the Big A

The opening of Aqueduct in 1894 attracted surprisingly little coverage in local newspapers, perhaps because at that time, it wasn’t the only game in town; even as Aqueduct opened, racing was being conducted at Jerome Park in the Bronx. The Brooklyn Eagle carried several brief stories about its planning and opening, while the New York Times barely mentioned it.

Fast forward, though, 55 years, and the story is quite different.

The re-opening of Aqueduct in 1959, after extensive renovation, excited coverage from a variety of perspectives. A review of stories from the Times offers a glimpse into both a strange old world of racing, and a rather familiar one.

The re-opening of the track in Ozone Park affected more than just the local neighborhood; beginning in June of 1959, the Transit Authority began testing its Daily Double Special, a subway train designed to get punters to the track as fast as possible, and certainly in time to place an eponymous bet. Stanley Levey recounts the events of the test that took place in early June, from 42nd St. and Eighth Avenue out to the track:

The start was slow, the course rough and the finish indifferent. Time: 28:43.

Like a race in which a horse who goes to the lead too early, this initial pace was characterized as too swift:

After the ride, which occasionally resembled a steeplechase more than a flat
race…the authority chairman ordered the running time cut back to a thirty
minutes minimum.

Despite what appear to have been the discomforts of the ride out, a ceremony was nonetheless held upon arrival on the track, which was still three months from opening:

John Hanes, NYRA president, dedicated a white and gold eighth pole from the old
Aqueduct. It was at this pole that Man o’ War came from behind to defeat John P.
Grier in their famous two-horse race in the Dwyer Stakes in 1920. In
memory of the event Aqueduct will run a $100,000-added Man o’ War Handicap on
Oct. 24. (Levey, free to subscribers)

The article also notes the inauguration of an express train from Brooklyn, leaving from the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in downtown Brooklyn and arriving at Aqueduct in eighteen minutes. Would that it were extant…

The run-up to the re-opening of “the new dream race track” (don’t you just love it?) occasioned one Times writer to look back at horse racing in New York City, boasting that horses had been racing in New York for nearly 300 years, far longer than in other racing states; the article dates racing in New York to 1668.

Early-day racing usually was run up the Bowery or else on the Trinity Church
farm, lying from Broadway west toward the river, around Vesey and Barclay
Streets…

and the author quotes a report from October, 1716:

“a horse race in the Bowery Lane where Mr. Byvanck’s horse run against the horse
of Mr. Johnston (the Mayor) and that Mr. Byvanck’s horse win the race by about
six lengths.”

Even in the 18th century, though, racing ran into problems: in 1774, racing was forbidden on “highways near the city,” and in 1798 the City Council prohibited racing on the streets within the city. What a damn shame.

Like most racing writers, our author isn’t content to celebrate the sport; he also laments:

Yet the improvement of the breed that no doubt has resulted from the cultivation
lavished on it through the years is seen in speed but not in stamina.

So it’s not only contemporary race fans who bemoan the loss of stamina in horses; the generations to which we look back to find horses who were sturdier and stronger themselves found their horses wanting. In support of his plaint, the author refers to the 18th century New York Subscription Plate, in which horses carried ten stone (140 lbs) and ran the best of three heats at two miles per heat, and to a race in April 1754, run against time from just north of Chambers St. to Kingsbridge and back—about fourteen miles. Winning time: one hour, 46 minutes.

Three days later, the Times brought racing brought squarely and certainly back to the present, when, on September 14th, 1959, 42,473 people turned out to see the new racetrack; it had cost $33,000,000 and was at the time the “largest sports plant in terms of acreage.” Its opening was an event, likely as anticipated as a new ballpark might be today.

Or perhaps a cathedral, given the Joseph C. Nichols’s description in the Times:

Through the two or three hours preceding the first race the patrons were almost
hushed and solemn as they made their way through the cavernous plant. They spoke softly and stepped slowly, as if they were in a sanctum instead of in a place
that anybody could enter for the sum of $5 in the clubhouse and $2 in the
grandstand.

Check that out…how often can you say that the price of something has declined since 1959?

In addition to celebrating the opening of the new Aqueduct, this article offers a succinct overview of the mid-century racing business in New York. Noting that Thoroughbred racing was a significant source of revenue in the state, Nichols goes on to say:

New Aqueduct came into being as the result of a suggestion by [Racing Commission
chairman Ashley Trimble] Cole in 1954. At that time, while racing revenues were
increasing in other states, New York was at a standstill, for two reasons.

One was that there were no new conveniences to the fans, in contrast to
the advances made in other states. Another was that racing could not be operated
on a solvent basis with the state taking 11 per cent of the handle and the track
only 4 per cent.

Cole suggested a revision in New York’s approach to the sport, and a committee from The Jockey Club…was formed. This group offered the suggestion that the problem could be met with a modern plant and a reduction of 1 per cent in the state’s ‘take.’

The Greater New York Association, now the New York Racing Association, was formed and a loan of $63,000,000 was obtained from the banks. Out of this sum the association purchased the privately owned stock of Belmont, Aqueduct and Jamaica and began operating the tracks in 1956. The culmination of the grand plan was the opening of Aqueduct. (Nichols)

Don’t you love thinking of Aqueduct as the culmination of a grand plan of any sort? Though perhaps it’s not so different now; to a certain extent, the future of the racing industry in New York does indeed depend on a grand plan culminating at the Big A: the long-awaited installation of video lottery terminals that industry officials hope will pump money into racing coffers, as it is pretty much received wisdom these days that racing cannot sustain itself. (For how this is affecting Maryland racing and a crucial slots vote next week, see Frank Vespe’s post at That’s Amore Stable.)

Given the grandiose ideas being thrown around regarding Aqueduct, perhaps it’s not far-fetched to imagine that in 2010—or is it now 2011?—tens of thousands will turn up in Ozone Park to witness the next grand re-opening and re-envisioning of the Big A. Steve Zorn of The Business of Racing discusses the past and the future of Aqueduct in a recent post, and he includes a rendering of what Aqueduct might look like, post-slots installation.

There’s also a great photo of the saddling enclosure at Aqueduct on opening day 1959 in this Times article; it’s not below the grandstand, as it is now, but rather, right out in front, on the track. Check it out.

Levey, Stanley. “IND Racing Train Gets A Workout.” New York Times. 3 June 1959. 31 Oct. 2008.

Nichols, Joseph C. “New Aqueduct Track Is Opened; 42,473 Fans Wager $3,430,765.” New York Times 15 Sep. 1959. 31 Oct. 2008.

“Topics.” New York Times. 11 Sep. 1959. 31 Oct. 2008.

5 thoughts on “The Grand Re-Opening of the Big A

  1. Thanks for the history lesson. I don’t think that I got to Aqueduct until 1960 (when I was 17 and could just about convince the mutuel tellers to take my bet). I do remember that there were real crowds there on the weekends, though I must confess that I never quite felt that I was in a “temple.”

  2. another great post bklynif you look carefully around the downtown platforms of the A at 42d st you can see a sign for the racetrack train. it looks like the train left from a lower level that’s closed off. i work at an ny paper; about 15 years ago aqueduct cancelled one winter day due to weather and an editor asked, “did we get that on the agate page?” an oldtimer said i remember when that would have been on the front page.cheers, chris

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