One hundred and three years ago this month, Belmont Park opened. Described by racing historian William H.P. Robertson as “by far the most magnificent establishment of its kind in America,” the new track hosted the Metropolitan Handicap on opening day, the race having been transferred from its original home at the Morris Park track in what is now the Bronx.
The grandeur of the new racetrack and the running of the esteemed race attracted a crowd of which any contemporary track would boast, and the sort of lengthy and detailed coverage in the New York Times that would make today’s racing executives salivate:
Forty thousand people journeyed to the plains of Hempstead yesterday to see for the first time the newest and the biggest thing in the world of racing—Belmont Park…All these thousands were attracted thither, not only by the wish to participate in this epoch-making event, but also by the desire to see the fourteenth running of the Metropolitan Handicap, first of the really big races of the season.
Detailing both the races of the day and the opening of the track, the original article appears to have taken up nearly a full page of the paper. While generally laudatory, the report does mention that “the vast and beautiful grand stand was a veritable cave of the winds,” and opening day did not go off without a hitch. The original post time of 2:30 had to be pushed back twice, until nearly 3:00 pm, as the train from Sheepshead Bay that was bringing some of that day’s starters to the track was delayed.
In the Metropolitan Handicap, the three-year-old Sysonby, owned by James R. Keene, was taking on his elders for the first time; the Metropolitan was the seventh start of his career. He’d been defeated only once, in the Futurity at Sheepshead Bay, and it is generally believed that his third place finish that day is due to his having been drugged by his groom prior to the race. He carried 107 pounds in the Metropolitan, while his four-year-old opponent carried 97. He was also racing for the first time beyond six furlongs.
The racing fans who came out to witness racing for the first time at the new track also saw a first of another kind:
Half a furlong from the wire no less (sic) than five of the thirteen contenders were practically abreast, and victory seemed possible for any one of them. Then Sysonby, hard ridden by Willie Shaw, who had led almost from the start, dived desperately into the depths of reserve that all good horses have for such occasions, brought up a last ounce of courage and speed and forged to the front. But at his shoulder bobbed the lightly weighted Race King, piloted by Louis Smith, and drawing ever closer as the wire approached. Ten jumps from the end the pair raced as one horse. In the last jump they nodded together and the judges could not separate them.
Robertson called the dead heat a “moral victory” for the younger colt, given the higher weight, the distance, and the fact that it was his first race in eight months. Sysonby’s owner, Mr. Keene, might be forgiven for not finding a moral victory quite sufficient; apparently, he and Race King’s owner had a decision to make regarding purse money:
The racing officials were waiting for the owners to announce whether they would run off the race or divide the stakes on the dead heat. Owner Richards took the initiative and declared himself perfectly willing to abide by the first running and accept the half victory he had already won with Race King.
Keene accepted this proposal, and while his name goes in the record books as one of the winners of the first Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont, only half of the purse money went into his bank account.
Sysonby finished his career with just that one loss. He raced fifteen times, the last time in September of 1905. He won short and he won long, and he was supposed to come back and race at four, but a skin condition kept him on the sidelines into the summer, when blood poisoning killed him in June. Sysonby was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Monday brings the 116th running of the Metropolitan Handicap, at the still imposing Belmont Park. Those same breezes will cool the racing fans in the grandstand—likely, unfortunately, far fewer than the 40,000 who came out to see Sysonby. But at least post time won’t be delayed as we wait for the horses to arrive.
“Belmont Park Open, Metropolitan A Tie.” New York Times. 5 May 1905. 23 May 2009.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.