The final turn at Gravesend. Photographed and published by B.W. Kilburn, c1909. Library of Congress.

The final turn at Gravesend. Library of Congress.

The Gravesend Bay racetrack, under the supervision of Phil and Mike Dwyer’s Brooklyn Jockey Club, operated in Brooklyn from 1885 – 1910, its race dates alternating with those of the Sheepshead Bay track. The rise of anti-gambling legislation in New York led to its closure, and even though gambling became legal again in 1913, Gravesend never re-opened; it was sold for development in 1921. No trace of it remains in its Brooklyn neighborhood.

On Saturday, the Gravesend track is recalled in the feature race, the Grade III Gravesend, the last graded stakes race on the New York racing calendar. It will be run at six furlongs, for three year olds and up.

When the Maryland Jockey Club closed down racing at Pimlico, the Preakness was moved to New York, run first at Morris Park in the Bronx, and then at Gravesend for fifteen runnings, until 1908.

An 1894 race, though, may well overshadow any other events that took place at this Brooklyn track, when Domino took on Henry of Navarre, winner of the Belmont and the Travers, to determine, at least in the minds of the public, who got bragging rights as the best three-year-old colt in the country. Henry boasted the more impressive résumé, but Domino had his share of backers, and an eager—and generous—crowd turned out for the race in September of 1894.

As always, I turn to the New York Times and its colorful racing writers to tell us the story of this long-ago racing day. And I must say that even I was surprised by unusual tenor of the “reporting” on this race, which took place on September 15, 1894.

The writer tells both the story of what happened on the track that day, and of what happened prior to it, when, apparently, bookmaker Riley Grannan was at the center of a betting frenzy previously unheard of. Edward Hotaling tells it this way:

On September 15, 1894, at Gravesend, the most respected (among his own kind) of bookmaker in the country, George “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith, ran into young Riley Grannon. [William] Robertson [in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America] recounts that they both moved “from book to book” to place their own money, until Phil said in front of a witness, “Riley, let’s quit piking. How much do you want to bet on this race?”

Riley answered, “I’ve got $100,000 that says Henry of Navarre will win.”

The Times tells a different story, of Grannan’s taking, not placing, bets:

Grannan worked like a Trojan while the money came pouring in on him, and finally had to wipe the odds off the slate to give him a chance to see how his sheet stood and to breathe. A great crowd of people watched the operations and every little while broke out into cheers for the daring young plunger.

“I have heard about it raining money,” said one old race-goer, as he watched the scene, “but that is the first time in my life that I ever saw it. I never before thought of the thing save as a figure of speech. Now I have actually seen it.” Then he pointed to the bubbling, boiling ring and to the hundreds of hands that were hoisted in the air, each hand waving frantically a cluster of greenbacks, until it certainly did look as if there was a shower of bank bills descending on the bookmakers. It was a sight such as one can see but once in a lifetime, perhaps. (New York Times)

This plunging, of both punters and bookmakers, is no doubt at least in part what led to the Times writer’s outrage following the outcome of the race. As Hotaling tells it, the dead heat between Henry of Navarre and Domino meant that the Domino win pool and the Henry of Navarre win pool (the smaller of the two) were merged and then divided evenly. Those who bet Domino, the favorite, earned $3.50 for their $5 bet, and Henry’s backers won $6.50.

In an article that today would seem shocking in the way it merges outright editorializing with what was apparently meant to be straight reportage, the Times writer let the judges have it with both barrels. The following excerpt is lengthy, but well worth, I think, quoting here in full:

The enormous crowd saw one of the gamest and best races ever run. That they should have been deprived of a decision as to which horse was the winner of the race is a matter of general regret, and there is no good reason why the judges should not have decided the race. That it should have been a dead heat is a physical impossibility. There have been so many absurd decisions of “dead heats” this year that racegoers are getting thoroughly disgusted with this subterfuge of judges in races in which a vast amount of money is staked.

Domino either won the race yesterday or he lost it. The way in which the horses were striding made it an absolute impossibility for them to have crossed the line on exactly even terms. Perhaps the refuge in a dead heat may have been a means of satisfying some persons, but it was not a true decision of the result of the race.

The placing of horses at the finish of a race is one of the simplest matters in the world, one that requires no high degree of skills, no great talent, no phenomenal talent, and one that the three men who are drawing absurdly high salaries as payment for that work out to be able to do. That Domino won the race yesterday afternoon there is no reason to doubt, even if the margin was the narrowest possible. Every reporter on the press stand called Domino the winner, and they are fully as competent as are the judges. So, too, did four-fifths of the people who were placed where they were able to see the horses at the end of their magnificent struggle. There is no good reason why the horse should be robbed of the laurels to which he was entitled, even though Riley Grannan or some other gambler was saved a few thousand dollars by the “dead-heat” subterfuge. That a dead heat was “the best way out of it” because it was a close finish is all nonsense. It was the very poorest way out of it. People went to the track for a decision as to the respective merits of the two best three-year-olds in America, and they were entitled to that decision. If the trio of judges could not agree, it was the business of the chief judge to render his own decision, and to allow the race to abide by that.

One might find any number of provocative angles in this story, but for me, the commingling of opinion and reporting is what stands out…is it irresponsible journalism, the way this writer makes primary his outrage at the outcome, at the expense of objective journalism? Or is responsible journalism at its finest, as the writer clearly believes that the betting public has been swindled by the ineptitude—or cowardice—of the placing judges?

Irrespective of one’s stance on the author’s decisions, one would, I would think, have to think wistfully of a time when a dead heat at racetrack would occasion this level of emotion, and this number of column inches. Do read the whole piece; it’s a wonderful reflection of both the public’s interest in racing and of a long-ago style of journalism—both of which are, perhaps unfortunately, virtually invisible to those of reading and writing about racing today.

New York Public Library, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division.

New York Public Library, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division.

Brooklyn map of Gravesend, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Double Page Plate No. 10” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

“Dead Heat, Said The Judges.” The New York Times. 16 Sep. 1894. 25 Dec. 2008.

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

The final turn at Gravesend. Photographed and published by B.W. Kilburn, c1909. Library of Congress.



One thought on “Gravesend

  1. The reporter should be the eyes of the public; that, to me, is the primary job. I like this kind of journalism, actually, because it doesn’t take the side of a particpant (calling Domino the winner is not taking sides; it’s calling it as it was seen), but, rather, works for the fans, the readers, the people. That, ultimately, is what the calling of journalism should be about — bringing knowledge and truth, as best as the reporter is able, to the public. That journalism has become many things but this as time has gone on has much to do with why even the most respected publications have lost the public’s trust. – J.S.

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