I live in a city that takes unabashed glee in the evisceration of its physical history. Tourist and natives alike are hard-pressed to discover any remnants of the Dutch and British settlements that settled Manhattan; little is left of the glory of the Gilded Age; and even the more recent bohemian period is barely discernible in Greenwich Village. It’s not only past generations who don’t recognize their New York; decade to decade, even year to year, the fundamental character of neighborhoods changes, with ex-residents left bewildered by the disappearance of the familiar. Penn Station? Gone? Ebbets Field? Vanished.
Fortunately, racing fans in New York don’t have to look quite as hard for evidence of the sport’s past. While no trace of the Jamaica, Jerome Park, Morris Park, and Sheepshead Bay racetracks remains, Belmont has been on its site since 1905; Aqueduct in existence since 1894; and parts of the clubhouse at Saratoga date to 1864, the second year of its meet.
Perhaps most prominently, though, racing history lives on in the races themselves, many of which have been run for more than a hundred years. There are races named for the founders of New York racing: the Travers, the Woodward, the Jerome, the Whitney, the Belmont. There are races named for the horses themselves: the Man o’War, the Count Fleet, the Tom Fool, the Prioress, the Jim Dandy, the Personal Ensign.
This Sunday the Ladies Handicap will be run for the 137th, and perhaps last, time. Run first on a wet and muddy day in 1868 at Jerome Park, it boasts an impressive list of distaff winners, many of whom have their own races named for them: Beldame, Top Flight, Vagrancy, Athenia, Flower Bowl, Shuvee.
I’m glad that it’s not my job to grade stakes or place them on the calendar; with so many competing interests to serve, it’s a thankless task, one bound to irritate more than it pleases. I recognize the difficulties of keeping prominent races that, for one reason or another, have lost their significance in the racing calendar, though the descent of the Ladies Handicap into irrelevance—and perhaps obsolescence–seems like a loss to the racing calendar and to racing history.
For much of the last century and a half, the Ladies Handicap was run in the summer, and until 2005, it was a graded stakes race. Now run in mid-December and ungraded, this celebrated race lives in ignominy, and it seems unlikely that its fortunes will change for the better. A December race on Aqueduct’s inner dirt track is unlikely to attract the sort of fillies and mares that would return the race to its former prominence. It wasn’t run in 2006, and Dave Grening in the Daily Racing Form quotes P.J. Campo, the racing secretary of the New York Racing Association, as saying that with only ten nominations, the race may not go this Sunday. Next year, there will be no such speculation: the Ladies Handicap has been taken off of the 2009 racing calendar.
Among the stakes eliminated was the Ladies Handicap, advertised by NYRA as the oldest stakes race in the country run exclusively for fillies and mares. The Ladies was first run in 1868. It was not run in 2006 and with only 10 nominations, is in jeopardy of not being run on Dec. 14 as scheduled.
“I know there’s a lot of history behind it, but it lost its grade several years ago; filly and mare races are a dime a dozen now, especially going long,” Campo said. “I don’t know if we’re going to fill it next weekend. It’s one of those races that just has fallen by the wayside.”
Races like the Ladies Handicap are national monuments, no less than Yankee Stadium (soon to go the way of Ebbets Field) and any number of buildings that are registered and recognized as worthy of historic preservation. As part of the most recent franchise deal, all intellectual property—including the races and their names—now belongs to the State of New York, likely not a concept that fills historians with confidence. There’s not much we can do about the fact that the Ladies Handicap is run in the winter and that it’s ungraded, but its present poor circumstances need not overshadow its celebrated past.
The Ladies Handicap has been run since before Huckleberry Finn was written; since before thirteen of our fifty states joined the union; since before football, hockey, or basketball was formally played in our country. This weekend’s renewal likely doesn’t include a Shuvee, a Beldame, a Vagrancy, but the fillies and mares who will take to the track are themselves participating in a tradition that’s nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and that in itself is worthy of our attention—especially if the Ladies Handicap is about to join other gems of New York history in the history dustbin.