“The World’s Finest Race Course”

One hundred and four years ago this week, Belmont Park opened. Hailed as a track that would appeal to the general public and not simply to bettors, Belmont occasioned a week of coverage leading up its opening, the day after which the Times declared, “There has never been a more brilliant assemblage at any race meet” (“Brilliant Throng“).

The first race was called, rather obviously, the Inaugural.

This race was run out of the seven furlong straightaway chute, heretofore known at all tracks by no more distinctive a name. In the paddock yesterday some one suggested that the chute be named after the owner of the Inaugural winner. As it happened, the winner was Blandy, and Blandy’s owner is August Belmont.

Somewhat unnecessarily, the writer goes on to note, “Now Mr. Belmont already has the track named after him…” and apparently the idea to name the chute at Belmont Park the Belmont Chute was scuttled.

This opening day article was as much—more?—of a society than a sporting piece, listing paragraphs of names of the notables who showed up, Whitneys and Belmonts and Iselins and Traverses. Not content to list who was there, the reporter also noted the attire of thirty of the women attending. A sampling:

Mrs. Oliver H.P. Belmont: Gown of light blue and brown, and large hat of brown chiffon, with a shaded ostrich plume in blue.

The Countess of Suffolk—Black gown and hat and necklace of pearls.

Mrs. Charles Marshall: Gown of apple green and white lace, a very large hat of lace, trimmed all around the brim with a double wreath of apple blossoms and green leaves.

Also included in the article was the guest list for the after-party at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mackay at Harbor Hill.

Though the writer heaps praise on the new track and reports on the crowd’s enthusiastic response, he attempts to offer a balanced view, offering a few small criticisms about the layout of the grounds.

Turning…naturally, as in all the nearby tracks, to the right as they walked, for the new park is one of magnificent distances, until they came not to the paddock but to the field, which in all other tracks is to the left. That made confusion, and the “pikers” were equally mixed up when they looked for the field. Everything was on the wrong side, and everybody was mixed up. When the first race was called and the horses started from the right and ran to the left the chronic racegoers threw up their hands in despair.

The management explains the reversal of the direction of the running by saying that the resulting courses fulfill racing requirements as to the direction of the sun’s rays. Besides the English turn permits at Belmont Park more advantageous location of the buildings. (“Brilliant Throng”)

A feature article on the new track published several days before the opening noted that the clockwise track experiment in the United States had been tried and abandoned in 1890 at Monmouth, as “the horses were entirely unaccustomed to running in that style, and results became so tangled and twisted that later the plan was abandoned…”

No such debacle would occur at Belmont, however:

…horsemen have been warned in time, and since last summer have been getting ready to run the “wrong way” by training their horses to the new method…

In many instances the yearlings were broken and took their first gallops with the rail to the right, while all through the Winter and Spring, the training tracks on Long Island have been opened at regular intervals for the exercise of horses in the manner that they must race at Belmont Park. (“Belmont Park The World’s Finest”)

Women were not permitted to bet—which is not to say that they didn’t—and the day’s feature was the Metropolitan Handicap, “the oldest of the great Spring handicaps,” having first been run in 1880. Sysonby won it.

Despite the overall celebratory note of the coverage, the Times published a letter from a disgruntled customer, in which the writer complains about access to and from his $5 seats as well as about the placement of the finish line. He alludes to other problems documented elsewhere, and closes his letter:

Now, on the 19th of May the terms of the present State Racing commissioners expire and their successors are to be appointed by Gov. Higgins. It seems to me that if race tracks are to be constructed and managed as Belmont Park is, in the spirit of “nothing for the public but the privilege of paying,” it is time for the Governor to consider whether it is wise that the builders and managers of these tracks should themselves be continued as members of the State Racing Commission, to supervise and approve their own work. (“A Belmont Park Experience”)

So not all was glorious on that long-ago May afternoon—despite the historic opening of the racing world’s only mile and a half track, despite the flocks of respectable folks who came out to watch the races, despite the anticipation of the running of a historic and celebrated race, there was still plenty to complain about.

At least, though, the toilets seem to have been working…

My apologies to those who have written about their frustrated attempts to access some of these articles. Some are available for free (as I think these are), but frequently, the more recent ones require a subscription (electronic or print) or payment.

Check out Colin’s Ghost for another perspective on Belmont today.

Brilliant Throng to See Belmont Opening.” New York Times. 5 May 1905. 28 April 2009.

Belmont Park the World’s Finest Race Course.” New York Times. 30 April 1905. 28 April 2009.

A Belmont Park Experience.” New York Times. 7 May 1905. 28 April 2009.

4 thoughts on ““The World’s Finest Race Course”

  1. Great article. Glad you highlighted the “society pages” aspect of the coverage. The complaints about the Derby becoming more about the glitz then the sport is nothing new. Reporting on big race days has always had that element of celebrity gawking that turns off the hardcore race fans (myself included).

  2. CG: Excellent connection! Like you, I am not fond of the Derby as celeb-magnet, but perhaps it has been ever thus. Though it seems that a lot of those celebs at Belmont’s 1905 opening were racing celebs? (Do we even have those these days?)WC: Absolutely right; my research stopped one step too short. Thanks for the correction.

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