Question: How did you get interested in racing?
Nearly everyone I know answers this question the same way:
Answer: My parents/uncle/grandmother took me to the track when I was a kid.
These early experiences instilled in them an enthusiasm for the game, one that carried into adulthood and that they now pass on to their children.
Among the charms of Belmont and Saratoga are the families in the backyard, the children in the playgrounds, watching the horses in the paddock, picking names in the program.
And we have Ashley T. Cole to thank for all of it.
Sunday’s New York-bred feature is named after this fine gentleman, who, we are told by NYRA, was chairman of the New York State Racing Commission and who played a “pivotal role” in the formation of The New York Racing Association.
Fine accomplishments, to be sure, but his obituary lists his real contribution to racing:
it was he who pushed for children to attend the races, if they were accompanied by an adult.
This innovation, adopted in June of 1958, was discussed in a New York Times article subtitled “Children Formerly Left At the Gate Are Given Sanction to Attend Thoroughbred Race Tracks.” As chairman of the State Racing Commission, Cole is quoted as saying, “’I have been agitating for the change for the past year.’”
The 82-year-old commission chairman explained that he had been unhappy because he couldn’t take his grandchildren to the races.
Prior to this decision, children were permitted by state law to go to the track, but the New York tracks had barred them in 1941. Asked how he thought religious groups would react to the new track policy of welcoming children, Mr. Cole replied, “Oh, they are against racing anyway.”
NYRA’s president, John W. Hanes, offered,
“I cannot think of a finer place to spend a picnic with the children than at beautiful Belmont Park.”
Though Hanes also stated that admitting children was not done with raising revenues in mind, children were charged full admission: $1.95 for the grandstand, $4.95 for the clubhouse.
(Aside: how nice would it be if my Rangers’ season tickets cost $1.05 more now than they did in 1958?)
Cole was a member of the State Racing Commission for more than 20 years, serving longer than any other member at the time of his death in 1965. He was chairman when he died, and had been since 1945.
While perhaps prescient regarding the presence of children at the racetrack, he was an outspoken critic of off-track wagering:
Mr. Cole frequently spoke out against legalized offtrack betting, saying it would have a disastrous effect on the tracks. He said it would lead the poor and the weak-willed “to take money out of the sugar bowl and use it to gamble.”
“Offtrack betting,” he went on, “would be shocking, improper, degrading and ignoble. People lose all control when gambling is made too easily available.” (“Ashley Cole“)
Shocking, improper, degrading and ignoble. One wonders what Mr. Cole might think were he at Belmont today, one vision, to his delight, realized in the children playing in the backyard, another, to his horror, in the dozens standing in front of television monitors, betting faraway tracks.
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“Ashley Cole, 88, State Racing Aide.” New York Times. 24 Feb 1965. 12 Sept 2009.
Perlmutter, Emanuel. “Children’s Admission to Tracks Wins Approval of Commission.” New York Times. 18 June 1958. 12 Sept 2009.