Dipping into the Champagne

We’re jumping ahead a few days with a look at this weekend’s racing; an evening school event on Thursday followed by a departure for opening weekend at Keeneland might mean that posting will be light as we head towards the weekend, so I look forward to—and back at—the Champagne.

First run in 1867, the race features a list of past winners that includes some of the most storied two-year-olds colts in the game: Colin, Grey Lag, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, Easy Goer. In the 19th century, the race was regularly contested among two-year-olds of both sexes, and in fact in the first 14 runnings, victories were evenly divided between fillies and colts.

The report of the race in the New York Times is one of those wonderful trips back in time, when race reports and charts, fractional times and odds, were combined with a lyrical storytelling foreign to readers today.

Yesterday brought the Autumn meeting of the American Jockey Club at Jerome
Park to a close, and a more brilliantly successful series of events was never
witnessed in the United States…The police arrangements, under the direction of
Capt. Wilson, of the Thirty-second Precinct, were perfect, and not a solitary
instance of drunkenness, disorder or loss of property occurred during the
meeting.

As anachronistic as such observations and style are, they seem almost commonplace when compared to this depiction of the relationship between turf writers and racing management:

To Mr. Chas. Wheatley, the obliging and experienced clerk of the course, we, in
common with the other representatives of the Press are under deep obligations
for the courtesy show in affording at all times necessary information in
connection with the racing, and which he was always so ready to furnish.

Jerome Park was located in what was then Westchester County, now the Bronx, and its five-day meeting took place at the end of October in 1867. As with race meetings today, its success depended at least in part on the cooperation of the weather, and our anonymous racing writer waxed poetic when describing the day of the first Champagne.

It was one of those warm, soft, dreamy days in October characteristic of the
Indian summer that poets have so loved to describe and dwell upon, and it was
consequently no wonder that the élite of the youth, beauty, wealth and
fashion of the Empire City poured out en masse to Jerome Park…

The Champagne was the third race on the card; seven fillies and colts went to the post, and while earlier in the article the work of the starters was characterized as satisfying to both the public and the owners, it did not garner praise in this instance.

There was considerable difficulty, as indeed is nearly always the case with
two-year-olds, in getting them off together, and the flat fell to a wretched
start…In races where so much money is at issue, a little patience and
carefulness ought to be exercised by the starter.

Colonel McDaniel’s filly Sarah B got the best of the start; off to a three-length lead, she led to the wire, winning by two. A filly took second place as well.

In 1945, two-year-old fillies got their own one-mile race, the Frizette; both of these Grade I races will be run on Saturday, along with the Grade I Jamaica on the grass. I have been accused of betraying my own sensibilities by abandoning New York for Kentucky racing on a premier weekend, when one of the best cat horses in the country, Courageous Cat, will be in action at my home track.

(Not to mention that the Rangers, now 2-1, have two games, and I will miss both of them; racing will have kept me away from the Garden for the first three home games of the season, a Blueshirt betrayal of its own.)

So it is with no little regret that I acknowledge that I’d like to be in two places at once this weekend; failing that, however, I yield to the call of the Bluegrass. Three-day weekends don’t come along very often, and nor does racing at Keeneland, or the opportunity to visit Commentator at his new home.

I hope to post again before the weekend, but in case I don’t…see you from Kentucky!

Jerome Park: Last Days’ Racing.” New York Times. 27 Oct. 1867. 7 October 2009.

2 thoughts on “Dipping into the Champagne

  1. Teresa,Your style is so personal and relaxed it is a pleasure to take in. Have a safe trip and good luck.As an aside, your Champagne Stakes history includes reference to unwieldy starts and long delays at the post — undesirable for both the competitors and the wagering public, as well as newspaper writers. That uncontrollable condition led eventually to measures more constrictive than the bullwhip and brute force of official starters and their assistants. Thick rubber bands, permanent half-stalls, Model T fords and heavy steel beams became, over time, today's agile mobile starting gate that we see at every major track in America. This apparatus, unknown at Jerome Park of the nineteenth century, became a boon to the safe conduct and quicker (possibly more than thirty minutes' delay back then) dispatch of fields. Prior to today's starting gate, nine-race cards simply could not be conducted in four hours: Hence, Morris, Jerome and the many other tracks operating back then held only five or six events during short meets that you have mentioned.Sorry for the lengthy background material, but I thought it somewhat relative to such appeasing newspaper quotations you have happily included, probably social necessities that connected then-media types to the track officials, and which could inspire continued friendly access to information despite the challenging circumstances of nineteenth century horseracing. Or, in other words, the beat reporters might otherwise have said, "Come on, judge. Can't you get these fields off faster? I've got to get my story in before dark!"I prefer what actually made it into the racing literature that you have recalled. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for your very kind words. I have read, in some of those old accounts, of interminable delays before the start of races, with accompanying crankiness on the part of the observers and writers. This writer apparently felt that his one reproving sentence was sufficient.Thanks for the detailed information on the evolution of the starting gate. Great stuff!

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