To Racing, With Love

While thousands of massed onlookers vented their excitement in outcries which
merged into a prolonged roar, five lightning-hoofed throughbreds (sic) flashed
over the finish line in the Paumonok Handicap at Jamaica yesterday clustered in
a compact group. (New York Times)

It was last year’s Paumonok that led to my discovery of the wealth of racing writing in the New York Time’s archive, a trove through which I have spent far too hours wandering, finding both the sought-after and the serendipitous. The focus of today’s post is an example of the latter.

In 1922, as in other years, the Paumonok was featured on the opening day card at Jamaica, and our anonymous New York Times reporter, clearly desolate after a winter without racing, pens a virtual love letter to the sport and to opening day. Writing this before I head off to Aqueduct for a day of January racing, I am clearly in support of year-round New York racing; that said, the joy of this writer as he returns to the track after hibernation nearly convinces me that a few months away would make me appreciate racing all the more.

[Tryster’s victory in the Paumonok] was a thrilling finish to an absorbing
race and it fittingly ushered into the limelight the racing season of 1922,
destined, in the opinion of practically every one concerned or interested in
turf affairs, the greatest since the early days of this century.

Some 20,000 persons were on hand prepared to render exuberant welcome to the sport of kings as it returned from its haunts of Winter and early Spring to reassume
ascendency in its richer province of New York for a six-months stay.

There much to celebrate on this long-ago May Day: the running of the Paumonok; the return of warm weather; an appearance by Derby contender Morvich between races. With the Derby a week away, Morvich, in the author’s estimation the “fleetest iron-shod creature in action,” put in a public workout between the third and fourth races, going :10.4 for the first furlong; getting the quarter in :21.4; three furlongs in :33 flat; a half in :44.4; and stopping the clock after seven furlongs in 1:12.

The horse seemed to skim along with an easy, frictionless action that was a
revelation. If he can carry just a good percentage of that whirlwind flight over
a mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby next week he should not be
bothered to win.

And indeed he was not, as Morvich wore the blanket of roses as the Kentucky Derby winner of 1922.

No Times racing report was complete without a full report on the weather, and the writers seemed to be in some sort of internal competition as to who could most eloquently describe the climatic environment:

As exclusively announced in advance by the salaried prophets of the Weather
Bureau, the day was a glorious one. The meteorologists, guilty and dejected
targets for a million scowls during the chill days of April, finally produced
for this occasion the best of the wares at their command, and the basking
multitudes decided to forgive and forget the past. Old Sol, who drives his own
steed-drawn chariot through the heavens and still scorns the modern motor,
smiled down upon the sport of thoroughbreds and Kings.

In addition to the racing on offer at Jamaica that day, racing authorities in New York decided to offer a frisson of fashion française to the ladies who ventured out to Jamaica:

One of the entertaining features of the occasion was a group of American
mannequins “à la Française” patroling (sic) the club house lawn bedecked in the
latest whimsies in afternoon gowns and millinery…It has been the custom of
French modistes and other experts in the exterior decoration of femininity to
show in this manner on the race courses about Paris their latest Spring, Summer
and Autumn creations. Now the idea has been imported thither, and it is quite
possible that a mannequin paddock will have to be provided in each of the New
York racing parks.

“The exterior decoration of femininity.” A “mannequin paddock.” Man, these guys were good.

Our anonymous author did spend some column inches on the actual racing, discussing in detail Tryster’s victory in the Paumonok as well as mentioning the Inaugural Stakes, but the cultural and social import of the day garnered far more of his attention. He wrote of the horses “spurning the ground of the course from under their feet in mighty strides,” but also of the throngs outside the paddock (the equine one, not the mannequin one), and of the spring opening of the track being an event worthy of drawing 20,000.

These old articles did more than tell us who won and lost on a given day, and what the odds were; they capture moments in racing, cultural, and literary history. In 90 years, when some racing enthusiast tries to figure out where the Paumonok came from and who won it in 2009, I wonder she’ll find?

Tryster Captures Paumonok Handicap.” New York Times. 4 May 1922. 24 Jan 2009.

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