The Withers, and Withering

Withers:  “The high part of the back of a horse or similar animal, located between the shoulder blades.” (American Heritage Dictionary, via Wordnik)  

Well, that’s certainly appropriate.

Withers:  Mr. David Dunham Withers, member of the American Jockey Club and one of the founders of Jerome Park (via NYRA).  He was also instrumental in the re-opening of Monmouth Park in 1890.  

 No wonder, then, that he had a race named after him, and that its first fifteen editions were held at the track in Westchester County (now the Bronx) that he had helped create.  Jerome Park opened in 1866; the first Withers was run eight years later, in June of 1874, on the first day of the meet. 

Those were heady days in the racing world, when the fashionable turned out regularly, when racetracks were packed; when racing got what seems now enviably detailed coverage in the newspaper. Even in that context, the remarks in the New York Times following this opening day at Jerome Park seem unusually…triumphant. Proud. Optimistic. To the contemporary reader, they seem unimaginably jubilant.

If there be any doubter who questions the progress of horse-racing in America, who has any misgivings as to its improvement in quality, and as to the extent of the public interest which it excites, he should have been present at the opening of the Spring meeting of the American Jockey Club.  His doubts would unquestionably have been set at rest, and he would possibly have been forced into a confession of belief. (“Jerome Park”)

 Would that such high hopes reigned on our opening days; would that the return of racing was so unequivocally, unabashedly celebrated.

 But wait…there’s more. You know how we always how hear about how much better racing is in Europe? Horses are sounder, tracks are safer, shorter meets are better, that kind of thing? Well, it was not, apparently, ever thus:

There is one satisfactory matter in connection with the growth of the sport in this country, and that is, that it thrives so well without a corresponding increase of the manifold evils which render some of the best European race-courses akin to disreputable. The multitudinous adjuncts which in other countries divide the attention of the spectators with the sport proper, have no abiding place here. The unblushing knaveries of roulette and rouge et noir do not bourgeon well with us…Our racing festivals are confined to the sport which they profess to encourage and develop…

Ah, those ebullient, pre-racino–and long-gone–days of racing in this country.

As racing’s fortunes have faded, so too has the Withers.  Its list of winners boasts Sir Barton, Man o’War, Count Fleet, Native Dancer.  Some recent winners, such as Bernardini, have been mighty accomplished. The Withers is still a graded stakes race– Grade III—and it still attracts horses with Classic aspirations—though that Classic is generally the Preakness, and not the Kentucky Derby.  It may still be an important race—it may be—but it is not, alas, what it was.  And as we look back to that exuberant opening day in 1874, neither, clearly, is racing.   Withers:  loses freshness; droops.  (via Wordnik)

Previous Brooklyn Backstretch posts on the Withers are here.

Jerome Park:  First Day of the Spring Meeting.”  Nytimes.comNew York Times.  7 June 1874.  Web.  23 April 2010.

The End of Monmouth Park.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 14 March 1897.  Web. 23 April 2010.

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