Empire City, and the Demoiselle

Saturday’s Demoiselle offers any number of memorable renewals, won by any number of memorable fillies: broodmare extraordinaire Better than Honour’s win in 1989; Triple Tiara winner Chris Evert’s victory in 1973; Derby winner Genuine Risk’s triumph in 1979. Preceding generations likely have their own memories of the winners of this race, which was run for the first time in 1908.

Tempting as it is to explore these storied finishes, today I go in another direction, to the history of the venue at which this race was first run: Empire City, in Yonkers, NY.

Empire City doesn’t make much of an appearance in New York’s racing history; it doesn’t seem to get quite the same attention and respect as the tracks at Jamaica, Sheepshead Bay, Morris Park. From its inception as a Thoroughbred race track, Empire City was not welcomed on the scene by the New York racing establishment.

Empire City opened in 1899 as a trotting track; a year later, its owner died and racing for the most part ceased until the track was purchased by James Butler, a horse owner and New York City grocery store mogul. One of his more famous racehorses was Pebbles, who won the Matron at two, and who at three was second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont.

The Jockey Club did not take kindly to Butler’s appearance on the scene. Butler intended to race both trotters and Thoroughbreds at Empire City, an objective that the Jockey Club attempted to thwart through 1907. It didn’t help that Butler planned to race in August during Empire City’s first season, competing with Saratoga, nor that he was considered a somewhat déclassé upstart thumbing his nose at the Belmont/Whitney crowd:

James Butler…had no fear of what he called the Long Island “silk hat crowd,” the
Belmont and Whitney types. Butler owned Empire City at Yonkers, and after
daring to run simultaneously with Saratoga in 1907, he had forced Jockey Club
chairman Belmont to assign it its own dates in the circuit. (Hotaling 199)

The tussle between Butler and the Jockey Club regularly made the courts and the pages of the New York Times in 1907, as Butler sought dates from the Jockey Club. On July 21st, the paper came down squarely on the side of Butler and Empire City, placing the conflict in the larger context of social and economic troubles:

The quarrel is not only a very pretty one as it stands, thus seeming to invite
the participation of persons who have joy in conflicts, but it involves some of
the gravest problems that now confront the American people. The Jockey
Club has undoubtedly been guilty of a flagrant attempt to restrain trade, while
the Empire City track, lacerated and torn by the heel of the oppressor for no
other crime than defending its rights, typifies in a singularly accurate manner
the sufferings of the people borne down by plutocrats. (“The Horse Octopus”)

As this article points out, the State Racing Commission had already been compelled by the courts to grant Empire City a racing license; the Jockey Club, however, refused to recognize the new track as legitimate, and declared that any horses who raced at Empire City and any horsemen who participated in the August meet would not be permitted to race at any other Jockey Club tracks. The Times attacks the Jockey Club’s stance on social and economic grounds, but doesn’t stop there:

Mr. Butler’s August racing meeting would not only give great pleasure to
himself, his friends, and his patron, but it would impart an otherwise
unattainable vivacity to the tranquil life of the near-by City of Yonkers.

The Times notes that “the Constitution does not specifically vest Congress with the power to regulate horse races,” but that that power is not withheld, either, and calls on the federal government to step in, as the matter is too important to be left to the States “because of the danger of perversion through local interest and influence”:

The right of the people peaceably to assemble and hold a hoss-trot has never
been and cannot be abridged.

Go, New York Times! Horse racing as Constitutional right—now there’s an angle we haven’t tried!

Less than a week after this editorial appeared, the Jockey Club put forth in the Times its defense of its resistance, indicating that its intransigence was rooted in its interest in protecting the integrity of the sport:

Under the auspices of The Jockey Club running meetings have been elevated to a
high standard as an American sport, and the rigid enforcement of its rules has
eliminated from the turf those scandalous practices which only a few years ago
threatened its existence. These rules are for the protection of all
interested—horse owners and spectator, breeder and trainer, jockey and stable
boy. The Jockey Club recognizes racing as a sport and only as a sport; it does
not consider it as an addenda to a gambling proposition or as a stimulus to
commercial thrift. Therefore it regards all new applications for its indorsement
(sic) with concern and does not extend its auspices without the assurance that
horse owner and public will be fully protected. (“Stand of Jockey Club”)

How pure, how noble of the Jockey Club. Really, who could argue with this principled stance?

With or without the Jockey Club’s “indorsement,” Empire City did indeed race in August of 1907, to much praise. Average attendance was about 14,000; judging was “prompt and efficient”; the work of the starter was “a revelation” (“Closing Week”). Particular credit for the success of the meet was given to the stewards, one of whom, a Mr. Matt J. Winn, would go on to make his mark in racing to the south and west of Yonkers, bringing to prominence a race called the Kentucky Derby.

The Times noted that,

So clean has the racing been that a number of horsemen have forsaken Saratoga,
with its health giving waters, for the Empire Track (“Closing Week”),

thus bringing to reality one of the Jockey Club’s worst imagined nightmares, and in January of 1908, the racetracks in the state got together to create a racing calendar that assigned non-conflicting dates to each of them. Later that year, the Demoiselle was run for the first time at this newly-established track. As if Empire City hadn’t had enough problems, Governor Charles Hughes of New York was doing his best to outlaw racetrack gambling in New York, and though his bill didn’t pass, the Agnew Hayes bill, prohibiting racetrack gambling, was enacted, resulting in a 1908 Empire City meet that opened with official sanction, but without the ability to offer betting.

In fact, the report of the first running of the Demoiselle was far overshadowed by information on the lack of gambling at the track:

There was much curiosity…regarding the restrictions put on betting by the
operation of the new law, but the day’s racing failed to develop any novelty in
that line. The Westchester County officers were very well represented, as also
were the Yonkers police. Before the racing began there was a conference of the
local authorities….the orders for the enforcement of the law, as issued to the
police, were made to agree with the decisions of the courts defining the acts
which are prohibited by the anti-betting law. (“Melisande Wins”)

Quite good of them to agree with the decisions of the court, don’t you think? One sentence at the end of this article notes that Melisande won that first Demoiselle easily, “galloping in hand all the way.”

The Demoiselle was run with two exceptions at Empire City until Thoroughbred racing there ended in 1942; a 1950 piece in The New Yorker magazine noted that Empire City “was too small for the crowds it drew” (Minor), and the meet was thus moved to Jamaica. In 1950 the track underwent major renovations and was renamed Yonkers Raceway; more recently, the plant was re-designed so that video lottery terminals could be installed, and Yonkers Raceway was reborn as Empire City at Yonkers Raceway. Love or hate the introduction of machines to subsidize racing, at least the facility evokes its past in its latest incarnation.

Photo from Odds On Racing

Closing Week for the Empire Track.” The New York Times 26 Aug 1907. 28 Nov 2008.

The Horse Octopus.” The New York Times 21 July 1907. 28 Nov 2008.

Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Melisande Wins In A Record Race.” The New York Times 18 Aug 1908. 28 Nov 2008.
Minor, Audax. “The Race Track: Here We Go Again.” ­The New Yorker 6 May 1950. 28 November 2008.

Stand of Jockey Club.” The New York Times 26 July 1907. 28 Nov 2008.

4 thoughts on “Empire City, and the Demoiselle

  1. I really enjoyed reading this historical post, nice job! I am amazed at the politics involved in racing at the turn of the century. I have found similar historical accounts about early California racing. There was quite a lot of anti-gambling sentiment that was hotly debated in those days. I’m running a series of posts on my blog, starting next week and leading up to opening day at the Santa Anita winter/spring meet, exploring the development of some of the early precursors to Santa Anita Racetrack, and the political scheming that went on. Thanks for following my blog, and I look forward to comparing notes with an east coast Thoroughbred writer! Mary

  2. Thanks for the comment, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the history of racing in California, a subject about which I know nothing. Cool!

  3. came across your blog while looking up my own history, and that of my father (work history). i was born in 1942 in yonkers. my father worked for empire city race track at that time. prior to my birth, my parents ant two brothers had an apartment in the club house at empire city. by the time i was born, we lived in a cape cod cottage inside the race track grounds. my father started work there in the butler years, through the cane years, and during the tannenbaum years we moved to goshen. n.y. where my father managed the mile track. my father died in 1969 while still employed by yonkers raceway. i have fond memories of going to the empire state building with my dad, to pick up payroll. unfortunately, after his death, and my move to florida with my husband, all contacts with yonkers and racing were put aside. so great to see someone writing about that history. thank you.

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