The Stuyvesant

Reminders of New York City’s Dutch roots are ubiquitous: in the orange and blue colors of the Mets, which come, via the New York State flag, from the orange and blue of the Dutch flag; in the names of places like Brooklyn (Breuckelen), the Bronx (named for Jonas Bronck, who settled in the area in the seventeenth century), and Harlem (namesake of Haarlem, not far from Amsterdam in the Netherlands); and in the many local references to Peter Stuyvesant. This variously-characterized “genuine tyrant,” “doting father and husband,” and “statesman,” the one-legged Stuyvesant ruled New Netherland, on the island of Manhattan, for seventeen years before surrendering the colony to the British. He was exiled back to Holland but eventually returned to our shores, dying in 1672, “a New Yorker,” as Russell Shorto put it.

Russell Shorto’s excellent The Island at the Center of the World tells the story of the Dutch colony that began at the very southern tip of the island of Manhattan, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in New York history. You don’t need to be a history buff, though, to recognize Stuyvesant’s influence: you can attend Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan; you can live in Stuyvesant Town on the East River; and you can attend the Grade III Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct, first run in 1916.

The first twelve editions of the Stuyvesant were run at the Jamaica track (no international roots here—the roots of the various Jamaica invocations in New York lie in a corruption of the name of a local Native American tribe); the race got its new home at Aqueduct when it was renewed in 1963.

The running of the 1919 Stuyvesant seems to have been the occasion for much rejoicing and optimism in the racing world, of the sort that contemporary fans can only wish for:

That racing has come back as a popular sport in a measure that has surpassed the
fondest hopes of the leaders of the turf has now been demonstrated beyond the
shadow of a doubt. The wild hurrah with which the season opened might have
been due to the natural feeling of relaxation after the war, and it was within
the realm of possibility that a slump would follow. All chance of a
falling off in interest has disappeared now, for with the season about half over
the public is stronger than ever in it support, while better acquaintance with
the horses engaged has brought a keener interest in the races. (New
York Times

A few days earlier, Samuel Hildreth’s Purchase beat three other horses in the Stuyvesant, establishing himself as a rival of Sir Barton, first winner of the Triple Crown (though at the time, it was not known by that name, or even considered a particular accomplishment). The article on the race notes that Purchase set a track record, “as the Stuyvesant was the first race at a mile ever held on the track.”

Purchase’s main rival in the race was Eternal, and our racing correspondent spares no praise in his description of the two colts, his depiction of the former evoking comparisons to the ways in which Curlin is described:

When Purchase headed the quartet on parade he elicited unbounded admiration from the critics. His massive frame overshadowed Eternal and made the
McClelland crack look almost like a pony in comparison, while his lithe limbs
furnished evidence of speed and his glossy chestnut coat showed that he was in
top condition. In the matter of fitness, Eternal, the brown son of Sweep,
was his equal, showing life in every movement and a fire and dash in his
warming-up spin that converted many to his side. (New York Times)

The race looked competitive, but nearing the end, Purchase’s superiority showed itself.

As soon as Eternal leaped forward to dispute the leadership Loftus called on
Purchase, but without resorting to the whip, and the chestnut increased his
speed without apparent effort so that he retained his advantage. Shuttinger
[aboard Eternal] began to ride with more vigor at the eighth pole and plied the
whip with all his strength. Eternal was game and did his best, but try as he
would there was no matching the frictionless strides of Purchase, which moved
along as though in an exercise gallop and gained ground instead of losing it.

Attracted by the match-up between Eternal and Purchase, a far larger than usual crowd turned out on a weekday to see the race, and Purchase’s victory gave race fans a summer rivalry to anticipate; the Hildreth colt had been injured through the early part of his three-year-old season and thus had not yet met up with Sir Barton, the at-that-point undisputed leader of his division. The Stuyvesant win set up a meeting later in the summer in the Dwyer between the two colts, and the decision went to Purchase.

Beyond the excitement of having two top colts to watch, racing apparently had other reasons to celebrate in this early summer of 1919, at least according to our Times writer. Purses were going up at Jamaica, Belmont, Aqueduct, and Empire City; local racetracks were expanding in order to accommodate more fans; and racing leaders were beginning to talk in a way that sounds rather familiar today:

The increased attention given to racing is more noteworthy because a large
portion of it is due to the encouragement of men high in authority who realize
that racing is more than a medium for speculation. The United States has
embarked in the breeding industry and the horse of blood now has friends all
over the country who are not afraid to sound his praises and insist on his
retention as the backbone of the breeding of utility horses and animals suitable
for remount…

…under the inspiration of a general desire on the part of Government officials for the encouragement of breeding, the men interested in that business have themselves taken direct charge of the racing, which is the root and foundation of the breeding business. The legislators [in Kentucky] have seen the good accruing from racing when the public is properly protected, and the legalizing of pari-mutuel betting has led to tremendous crowds and large profits for the associations. Much of this money is turned back to the horsemen in liberal purses… (New York Times)

No doubt post-World War I relief contributed at least in part to the exuberance in the racing business; perhaps, after four grim and devastating years, people just wanted to have fun, and racing was one of the beneficiaries. I read these accounts with a certain wistfulness and envy; it’s tough these days to find anyone writing with optimism about racing, and it would be awfully nice to pick up a paper, open a magazine, or click on a website to find an unabashed celebration of the sport. The tendency now is to concentrate on what’s wrong, perhaps understandably, given the dire circumstances in much of the racing world. Nonetheless, what fun it must have been to be a racing fan in 1919, with two impressive colts ready to take on each other, and the prospects of the sport looking up:

Taken altogether, the prospects for horse racing on a well-conducted scale never
were better. Owners are spending big money for high-class racers, the contests
are attracting large fields, and the interest of the public is maintained from
day to day in a manner that has not been exceeded since the turf became an
American institution. (New York Times)

There will likely not be a lot of Dutch influence in evidence on Saturday afternoon when the Stuyvesant is run, and nowhere in the entries for the race is a colt who will bring out a few extra thousand people, as Purchase did 91 years ago. Empire Classic winner Stud Muffin takes on open company; the once-promising Ravel looks for his first win this year; and Helsinki races for the first time in 2008. Then again, as the calendar winds down, perhaps it’s good enough that we get a graded stakes, one of only a handful remaining in this New York racing year, and though an exciting three year old won’t hit the winner’s circle, perhaps an old favorite will.

Public Interest in Turf Growing.” New York Times. 22 June 1919. 14 Nov. 2008

Purchase Flashes Home First Again.” New York Times. 20 June 1919. 14 Nov. 2008.

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

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